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The Netherlands: no paradise in gender equality

By Gwen Rochat

An equal society for men and women: you won’t find it in the Netherlands (yet). This is proven by the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 wherein the Netherlands place 38th. Why is this and what is being done to change this?

To find out what the Dutch can do better, we must first study where we stand now. And that is in the 38th place, according to the World Economic Forum, an independent economic organisation. The report’s results are summarised below:

As you can see in the chart, the Netherlands excels at educational attainment and health and survival. However, it scores lowest on political empowerment, a factor that has even decreased since 2006.

Traces of the past

The future is built on our past, and in the case of the Netherlands, the past has left strong traces. In the past, Christianity played a big role in society.

Although this influence has diminished in our present-day, our society is still described as conservative and Christian, according to Ásta Berglind, researcher at the University of Tilburg. She has written her thesis ‘Creators of Change’ on gender equality in both Iceland and the Netherlands. “These influences affect the political environment and women’s participation in the labour market. The conservative and yet liberal environment in the Netherlands has led to a drop on international indexes such as the Global Gender Gap Index", she writes.

These traces can also be found in politics. Here, left-oriented politicians are more open to feminist plans than the right-oriented, conservative politicians. Yet in the Netherlands the emphasis lies on these conservative politicians. In her research, Ásta appoints the growth of populism as the cause for this.

“While crawling out of a crisis, people are often more prone to listen to practical (nationalist) solutions than direct their attention towards the discrimination of the marginalized.”


Less work hours; less money; a less stable position in the labour market; greater financial dependency: this is the situation for part-time workers, which most women in the Netherlands are. This causes women to have a less strong position in the labour market than men. Ásta agrees on this: “This part-time model is (according to the Dutch creators) a strong cultural factor that has a major effect on women’s position in society. The current cabinet has made it clear that their biggest concern now is to make sure that women expand on their working hours.”

Dutch feminist movements

#Freethenipple, #MeToo, the Slut Walk: these are feminist movements that have swept the world in the past few years and are movements that have found strong footing in Iceland. Although they exist in the Netherlands, these feminist movements are less on the forefront in society.

“The Dutch movements do no longer stage public protests to the same extent they did in the past and have therefore become slightly invisible."

“It is not that the Dutch women’s movements do not want radical change, only the collectivity is not as visible in the Netherlands as it seems to be in Iceland when it comes to lobbying through demonstrations and rallies", Ásta says. Perhaps this is the biggest difference between both countries, as in Iceland the strength of feminist movements is named as one of the causes for the country’s high amount of gender equality.

Eva Sigurðardóttir, an Icelandic feminist, studied in the Netherlands for four years. She tells us she noticed some differences between the Netherlands and her home country. “The first few weeks after I moved here, I heard over and over again that Dutch culture was so liberal and open-minded. But my feeling is, after my time here, that it isn’t as open-minded as they would like to think. It is more in words than actions”, she says. “It is hard for me to give clear examples because it is rather regarding attitude and vibe within the Dutch culture — but one of the clearest example of sexism in my daily life in the Netherlands is the amount of catcalling and harassment in the streets.”

An example of a Dutch feminist protest is the Women’s March in Amsterdam, which was held for the third time this year. In this march, thousands of people advocate equal rights for men and women.

Look here at photos from the Women's March in Amsterdam.

Own balance

When it comes to politics, few concrete actions are undertaken in the Netherlands. “The Dutch seem to favour a ‘bottom-up’ approach where the field needs to sort out their own balances without special measures. In Iceland, there is an understanding that special measures are needed to realize the equal status of women and men in Iceland.”

One feminist initiative that works actively on improving gender equality is Women Inc. Currently, the organisation is fighting to gain more political influence to improve gender equality and close the gender pay gap.

The Dutch pay gap

According to Women Inc., there is still a pay gap of fifteen percent in the Netherlands, while this percentage is lower in the rest of Europe.

But surely there already are laws to make sure men and women are treated equally? There are, but in practice these laws do not have their desired effect. This is why several politicians, including Ploumen, fraction member of the PvdA in the House of Representatives, are working on a bill. This bill resembles the equal pay legislation in Iceland: they have even used it as an example.

To take a closer look at the Dutch bill, we will look at the ‘explanatory memorandum’ published by the House of Representatives.

“No longer should the employee be responsible for stating wage discrimination, but should the employer have the duty to prove he offers equal pay for equal work."

This is what the initiators say. They think the employer should prove he or she pays his/her employees equally instead of letting the employees figure this out themselves.

The bill for equal pay is at least one concrete initiative to improve gender equality in the Netherlands. The question now is: will the bill be passed in parliament? Ploumen thinks it is a possibility: “Of course we hope there will be a majority that supports the law”, she says. We will have to wait and see: for now, the bill is hidden somewhere in the intelligible bureaucratic maze of politics.

Role model

Has gender equality already been achieved? Although most of the Dutch seem to think it has, it is most definitely not true. Apart from several initiatives there is no true awareness for this problem in Dutch society. Thankfully, we can look at Iceland for guidance. Why is it that Iceland is so successful in improving gender equality, and what can this teach the Dutch? You can read it here.

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