How Dutch women got to be the happiest in the world

Few Dutch women work full-time—does this mean they’re powerless, or simply smarter than the rest of us?

The feminism happiness axis

Photo by: Thomas Schlijper

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 baldly 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.”

The relationship between personal lifestyle choices and the socio-economic standing of women has been under the microscope in Holland ever since the publication of Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed in 2008. Ellen de Bruin, who patterned her book after Mireille Guiliano’s bestseller French Women Don’t Get Fat, began by defining the stereotypical Dutch woman: naturally beautiful with a no-fuss sense of style, she rides her bike to fetch the groceries, has ample time with her kids and husband, takes art classes in the middle of the week, and spends leisurely afternoons drinking coffee with her friends. She loves to work part-time and does not earn as much as her husband, but she’s fine with that—he takes care of the bills. The book went on to note that Dutch women rank consistently low, compared to those in other Western countries, in terms of representation in top positions in business and government—and rank consistently near the top in terms of happiness and well-being. In fact, just about everyone in Holland seems pleased with the status quo; in 2009, the Netherlands ranked highest of all OECD countries in terms of overall well-being.

Understandably, the notion that there’s a correlation between women’s relative powerlessness and their happiness rubs people like Heleen Mees the wrong way. Yet others frame the correlation differently, arguing that Dutch women have smashed the vicious circle of guilt that traps other Western women, to embrace a progressive form of work-life balance.

Sarah Sands, of the U.K.’s Independent, writes, “Perhaps [Dutch women] are happy because they don’t feel guilty for falling short of perfection. We are torn to shreds between the American and the Mediterranean models of womanhood. On one hand, we are boardroom feminists expecting equality of expectation and outcome. On the other, we are matriarchs, wanting to run model kitchens and walk through meadows with bands of children.”

Or to put it another way: yes, the personal is political—but it’s also pretty personal, too, and happiness has to count for something. As Germaine Greer opined in a recent interview on CBC Radio’s Q, “I think you have to understand that the corporate world is not the only world, and if women are going to enjoy their working lives, they have to arrive at a different paradigm. Life in the corporation is not all that much fun.”

Van Haeren echoes these sentiments. “Dutch women do not aspire to top positions because they do not want to encourage the values of the business models of today’s world. It is a silent resistance movement,” she says. “Maybe this will turn out to be the fourth wave of feminism. Women protect the possibility that one day we’ll wake up to realize that life is not all about acquiring more material wealth, power, status. Many Dutch women that I know want to stay sane, happy, relaxed.”

Eline Duterloo, 48, agrees. “I think women just simply do not look for 100 per cent fulfillment in their work. Women see themselves in a lot of different roles that they find more important to them: being a good friend, a good daughter, a good mother, a good sister, a good wife. That is why they are not 100 per cent competitive, and so do not reach the top, because in their hearts they do not really care about it enough.” Duterloo has a husband (who works full-time) and three daughters, aged 21, 19, and 16; she recently started working full-time as legal counsel to a major American corporation after years of part-time work.

Author Ellen de Bruin is puzzled that “everybody seems to have an opinion about how Dutch women are leading their lives, and some say it’s enlightened and others say it’s old-fashioned. What I find funny is the point of view that somehow we have found the solution for this work-life imbalance. What’s important is that women in the Netherlands are free to choose whatever they want to do.”

Social structures, however, undoubtedly play a role in what choices are available. Generous social programs make it possible for a two-parent family to get by quite nicely on a single full-time income. And yet, a strain of social conservatism persists in Holland: daycare is expensive, and shops close at 6 p.m. on weekdays and are closed entirely on Sundays—less than conducive to the daily juggling of full-time work and raising a family.

Women aren’t alone in choosing to opt out of the full-time rat race. More men are working part-time than ever before, and society is beginning to reward fathers for pushing back against the system to make time for their families. Last year, Lof, a magazine for working mothers, awarded a “Working Dad Prize” to a man who fought his employer in court and won the right to work part-time. And this year, businessman Rutger Groot Wassink was acknowledged by the government with a “Modern Man Prize” for his work in co-founding a campaign that promotes “Papadag” (Daddy day)—a day off for working fathers to be with their kids.

It’s hard to argue that people who choose the lives they want, and opt for happiness rather than titles, are not empowered. (I grew up in the Netherlands with a Dutch mother and a Canadian father and came of age watching my female relatives—who hail from educated, middle-class families—repeatedly prioritize free time over career progress and money.) Nevertheless, Mees argues that striving for happiness is slowing down progress in the women’s movement. “Happiness is overrated. It’s defined as the absence of problems. But it’s good to have challenges in your life. I believe in another kind of strength that women should have.”

De Bruin disagrees. “I think that’s such a strange argument. I hear it all the time. At some point, happiness is everybody’s ultimate goal. Everybody is seeking a way to live their own life in the most satisfying manner.”

In 1986, Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, came under fire when she told the New York Times, “What we need are real choices. And I don’t want to hear women saying one choice is more feminist than another.”

Perhaps women in the Netherlands have achieved that vision of real choices. Certainly, the prevailing cultural attitude seems to be that one choice—say, working part-time instead of striving for the corner office—isn’t better than another. Whatever this says about the current state of feminism, it is evidence of a certain type of independence: in Holland, it’s every woman for herself.

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