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Why are Dutch women so happy?


From MacLean’s…

Like many Dutch women, Marie-Louise van Haeren views herself as liberated. “Every woman in Holland can do whatever she wants with her life,” says Van Haeren, 52, who lives just outside of Rotterdam and rides her bicycle or the train to work three days a week at a police academy, where she counsels students. She has worked part-time her entire career, as have almost all of her friends—married or unmarried, kids or no kids—save one or two who logged more hours out of financial necessity. Van Haeren, who wasn’t married until last year and has no children, says she’s worked part-time “to have time to do things that matter to me, live the way I want. To stay mentally and physically healthy and happy.”

Many women in the Netherlands seem to share similar views, valuing independence over success in the workplace. In 2001, nearly 60 per cent of working Dutch women were employed part-time, compared to just 20 per cent of Canadian women. Today, the number is even higher, hovering around 75 per cent. Some, like Van Haeren, view this as progress, evidence of personal freedom and a commitment to a balanced lifestyle.

Others, however, view it as an alarming signal that women are no longer seeking equality in the workplace. Writer and economist Heleen Mees, for example, argues that the stereotypical Dutch woman has become complacent. “Even at the University of Amsterdam—the most progressive university we have—I had a 22-year-old student say, ‘Why is it your business if my wife wants to bake cookies?’ and the female students agreed with him! I was like, what’s happening here?”

Mees runs an organization called Women on Top that strives to push more Dutch women into ambitious career paths. Its slogan is “Out with the part-time feminism!” and it points to part-time work as a major factor in a lingering pay gap. Then there’s the matter of principle. “I think highly educated women have a moral obligation to take top positions, to set an example by their choices,” says Mees. “When women just stay at home or work part-time, they don’t reach the top, and they set bad examples for their daughters and daughters’ daughters.”

But Dutch women appear deaf to the siren call of the workplace. Asked whether they’d like to increase their hours, just four per cent said yes, compared to 25 per cent of French women. And while across the Channel, British media are heralding the resurgence of feminism—last weekend, some 500 women crowded into a feminist training camp, UK Feminista, to be trained in direct action and activism—in Holland, women like Van Haeren boldly proclaim no further need for the movement. “Feminism wasn’t necessary anymore by the time I grew up,” she says. “In my eyes, it was a thing of the past.”