Going Dutch: How I Found My Place in the Workforce

Yesterday, during TMI Tuesday hour, I was asked if I had an opinion about this article on Dutch women and workforce disparities. The article in question highlights the fact that few Dutch women work full time and even fewer seek a career in the traditional sense. This paragraph pretty much sums up the article’s thesis:

Though the Netherlands is consistently ranked in the top five countries for women, less than 10 percent of women here are employed full-time. And they like it this way. Incentives to nudge women into full-time work have consistently failed. Less than 4 percent of women wish they had more working hours or increased responsibility in the workplace, and most refuse extended hours even when the opportunity for advancement arises. Some women cite the high cost of child care as a major factor in their shorter hours, but 62 percent of women working part time in the Netherlands don’t have young children in the house, and mothers rarely increase their working hours even when their children leave home.

I mentioned that I used to have lots of opinions about this (it is not a new issue, it’s been a known fact over here for decades) but that was before I became fully immersed in this country (or integrated, as the immigration police likes to call it). My opinions then were based on my experiences in other parts of the world (namely, my working experience in South and North America and the influence of said working ethics in all of my adult life). This might come as a surprise to many, but the working ethics and conditions of Americans and Argentinians are eerily similar: long working hours, few vacation days, almost no protection in case of being fired or laid off (unemployment benefits are almost non existent in Argentina, and those that are put in place are difficult to qualify for) almost no union presence (at least in the white-collar jobs I always had), a market heavily geared towards a very American version of capitalism (at least in its current incarnation). So, I moved here with such cultural baggage. To me, that was the norm. In the environment where I spent the first 25 years of my life, the measure of one’s success was dictated by job title, salary and position in the social ladder, regardless of gender. It never occurred to me that it would be different some place else. So, when I was confronted with the gender disparity mentioned in the article, I was furious. To me, it was a sign that women were oppressed and not emancipated. My first few jobs around here, all in American corporate environments, reinforced this view. I was almost always the only woman in the team, and at a certain point (around the time I quit working in corporate and started my own business), not only was I the only woman in the team, I was also the team’s manager, in charge of around 40 guys who provided technical support for a specific industry. How come I, an immigrant woman labeled as a “Non Western person of color“ by the Dutch state could do this in a mere 5 or 6 years living here and the locally born Dutch women were nowhere to be seen in my work environment?  How was this even possible? I spent the next ten years trying to answer that question and, although I certainly do not have all the answers, I have some ideas.

Before I start, I feel the need to emphatically clarify something: everything I say about Dutch people and The Netherlands is a generalization for which there are many exceptions. People are not a uniform blob of mass behavior, so, there will be (and certainly are) exceptions to the behavioral observations I might mention; however, I am only using these generalizations to illustrate collective narratives and social norms, not to paint every Dutch person with a heavy, non individual brush.

First of all, people like the writer of the Slate piece view The Netherlands under their own personal cultural lens. We all do this. However, it takes a while to scratch below the surface and see what makes the national character of a given place. Moreover, it takes a good understanding and learning of the language and the cultural framework that the language provides. Many of us who move here, especially from North America (or even I would dare say, from the entire American continent) come here with something that is pretty much ingrained in our psyches: class mobility. Most of us were raised with the idea that we have to aspire (and actually succeed) in achieving more than our parents did. That is, if our parents managed to finish high school, we are expected to, at least, go to college; preferably get a Masters degree even. Such educational improvement, we are told, will help us ensure we also earn more than the previous generation and, in turn, aspire to be one class above than the one of our parents. Class mobility, for us, is the very fabric of our upbringing. Our family’s success (not only our own) will be measured by our ability to climb this social ladder. I contend that this comes from a mixture of “New World ideals” and immigrant ethics (seeing how much of the dominant population in the Americas descends from immigrants who left their home countries to seek a better life).

In The Netherlands such ideals of class mobility are weak, frowned upon by many. Several figures of speech emphasize this even. One of the most popular sayings in the Dutch language states “als je voor een dubbeltje geboren bent, wordt je nooit een kwartje“, this expression is used to imply that certain ambitions are not realistic; that if you are born poor you will remain poor all your life; to point out that one should not have ambitions above those of our social upbringing. As a forum user over here points out, even though the expression refers to monetary value (if you are born as a 20 cents coin, you will never grow into 25 cents), it is used to point to certain Victorian values about class, discouraging people from getting ideas above their station. In many Dutch environments (especially outside the big cities), you are encouraged to follow on your parents footsteps. There is almost a matter of family pride in continuing the trade of one’s parents. You are told you cannot outgrow the class you were born into.

Then there is the issue of personal ambition. The Dutch are ambitious, like every other human being out there. However, their ambitions are different from those of their North American counterparts. I know I keep bringing figures of speech and sayings to illustrate my points, but I firmly believe that these are excellent examples as they express part of the collective ideas about life, society and what this is all about. The Dutch like to use an expression to demonstrate their aspirations in life: “huisje, boompje, beestje“. That is “a small house, a small tree, a small pet”. They claim that a life well lived will consist of these three things. It is one of their measurements of ambition. Given the choice between the small house, the small tree, the small pet and a draining corporate job that will take them away from home for 14 hours a day, a great number of people will pick the small things. It is not out of laziness (god knows they can be extremely hard working and loyal), it is out of a sense of personal peace and enjoyment. These small things go hand in hand with another concept (a word that many Dutch take pride in due to the fact that is is nearly impossible to translate into English): gezelligheid. Every Dutch person aspires to a “gezellig“ environment, a gezellig life, gezellig friends and parties. As Wikipedia aptly explains, gezelligheid can mean cozy, fun, quaint, a nice atmosphere. But more importantly, it can also connote belonging, time spent with loved ones, the fact of seeing a friend after a long absence, or general togetherness. This is the heart of Dutch culture, of the Dutch character right there. The small things in life, a sense of belonging, a sense of being cozy amongst loved ones.

Then we have the issue of social control keeping people in their place so that they do not stick out too much. “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg“ (Act normal, in an ordinary way, that is crazy enough). You have crazy dreams? “Doe maar gewoon“ (act like ordinary people do). You want to study something that is considered completely outside the realm of your class aspirations? “Do maar gewoon“ (act normal, for the love of god!). Again, this does not apply to every Dutch person, but it has been quite common until, at least, a generation ago (it is slowly changing; a more global culture has also introduced more global and generic aspirations). Tall poppy syndrome (called maaiveld cultuur in The Netherlands; meant to signify that one should not stick one’s head above the crowd), where people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticized because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers has existed for centuries over here.

So, we have all of these social rules, norms and stereotypes mentioned above, none of which are gender specific. To these, you should add an ubiquitous presence in every Dutch person’s life: the welfare state. Now, the welfare state, or better said, being dependant on the welfare state is a source of shame for North Americans (and Argentinians as well, I might add). People are shamed into not accepting any “handouts” from the state; not to seek help even at the cost of extreme personal sacrifices. That is not the case, generally speaking, for the average Dutch person. If you are below a certain income bracket, you are expected and encouraged to make use of the subsidies and state sponsored programs to help you improve your life. This welfare state has been slowly eroded for the past 8 year or so of neo-conservative government (and something Geert Wilders systematically attacks to appeal to the middle classes who feel taken advantage of by the poor). If you earn below a certain threshold, you will be able to apply for rent subsidy housing, discounts in transportation and leisure, tax returns, heavily discounted school fees for your children, etc, etc. And for Dutch people there is no shame in using these advantages. The system has always worked to try to protect the poor and attempt to level the playing field. Single mothers used to get hefty payments every month to be able to live decently (I say “used to” because I am unsure if this has changed in the past few years; until, at least six years ago, when I regularly saw someone who was using this benefit, it used to be the case). Moreover, if you had a full time job, as a single mother, the subsidy would decrease considerably, to the point of disappearing if you earned above a certain amount per month. Women without a career (that is, those not earning above average incomes), had to make a tough decision: work full time and outsource the care of their child(ren), sometimes even earning less than what the subsidies provided or stay home and take care of the children as a full time mother. If you pair this with the fact that child care for babies and toddlers is prohibitively expensive over here (and not subsidized for the vast majority of women), the decision is a no brainer. Add all the factors I explained above (the social fabric of this country), together with a culture of welfare that gives priority to non working mothers and you have the current state of women’s workforce.

Is this good, is this bad? I don’t know. I do know that it is pretty unique and, again, many outside observers miss the point as they evaluate the country’s composition through the lens of their personal experience living elsewhere. For me, personally, it has meant that I found a place where I am comfortable. I never had the ambition of making money or thrive in the corporate world to begin with. It happened through a set of personal circumstances (ability to speak several European languages, education, previous work experience and the capability to work 12 hours a day without flinching if need be). But I had never wanted that as an aspiration in the first place. So I quit and started my own small thing. I earn less but I also work less. I also do work that I, personally, consider more meaningful. I get to goof around during working hours if I want to. If a project requires it, I can work 16 hours in a row or I can take a 3 hour lunch with a friend. I also got to travel a lot more (both for business and for pleasure) and to take a lot more time off (did I mention that during my corporate days working full time I had 35 days of paid vacation a year? yes, I did, and that is pretty much the norm around these parts for full time employees).

I started by saying I didn’t have all the answers. I hope that, at least, I have managed to provide some background to explain why women in the Dutch workforce are so misrepresented. And you know, perhaps I should be working instead of writing this post.

Editor’s Note: Red Light Politics is a brilliant and prolific writer whose work can be found in it’s original context here, on her blog.  She generously allows me to use her brainy musings every week.

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