Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Going Dutch

The Slate has an article on the Dutch women preferring not to work full-time. Here is the title of Jessica Olien's piece, to get right to the gist of why all this is of such interest to the powers that be:

Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles and a big gender pay gap, and they love it.
How very interesting! Imagine that we call paying fifty-fifty for a date "going Dutch"! But the Dutch are going full-steam back into the traditional gender roles.

Or that's what the article really means:

I've been in the Netherlands for nearly three months now, and I've come to one overwhelming conclusion: Dutch women are not like me. I worry about my career incessantly. I take daily stock of its trajectory and make vicious mental critiques of my endeavors. And I know—based on weekly phone conversations with friends in the United States—that my masochistic drive for success is widely shared among my female friends. Meanwhile, the Dutch women around me take a lackadaisical approach to their careers. They work half days, meet their friends for coffee at 2 p.m., and pity their male colleagues who are stuck in the office all day.

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.

It's hard not to wonder: Have we gotten it all wrong?
There you have it. Dutch women are happy and pity the male colleagues who are stuck in the office all day. We better pedal back to the mythical 1950s stat!

Hmm. Whenever I spot a number like 4% of women wishing they had more working hours or increased opportunity for advancement in the workplace I wonder where it came from. Because I don't have the book Olien quotes handy I cannot really tell. But something whiffs a bit, to my sensitive nostrils. For example, that number must have come from some study, right? And most studies don't ask generalized questions like that but only address them to a particular group of women.

So I started doing some digging on all this.

First I looked up the Dutch working hours. Here is some recent data:
Average weekly working hours in 2007 with overtime:
Men 34.7
Women 24.5

Interesting! I bet most of you thought that the male colleagues slaving away in the office were all there for ninety hour weeks, what with all those womenfolk enjoying their gardens and shit. Turns out that the Dutch don't work very long hours in general.

Those figures include part-time work, clearly. How do they differ from the average American hours if part-time work is included?

The data I found for US in 2009 do not compare directly but you can figure out the rough transformation:

On the days that they worked, employed men worked 56 minutes more than employed women. This difference partly reflects women's greater likelihood of working part time. However, even among full-time workers (those usually working 35 hours or more per week), men worked longer than women--8.3 hours compared with 7.5 hours. (See table 4.)
Note that "work" here excludes all unpaid work within the home. On that, American men and women differed, too:

On an average day, 85 percent of women and 67 percent of men spent some time doing household activities such as housework, cooking, lawn care, or financial and other household management. (For a definition of average day, see the Technical Note.) (See table 1.)

On the days that they did household activities, women spent an average of 2.6 hours on such activities, while men spent 2.0 hours. (See table 1.)

On an average day, 20 percent of men did housework--such as cleaning or doing laundry--compared with 51 percent of women. Forty percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 68 percent of women. (See table 1.)
And those in the US who had small children in the household the differences in unpaid work were greater:

On an average day, among adults living in households with children under 6, women spent 1.1 hours providing physical care (such as bathing or feeding a child) to household children; by contrast, men spent 0.5 hour providing physical care. (See table 9.)
The above data on household work and its division should also be kept in mind when analyzing the Dutch data. The gender roles there tend to be pretty conservative and those gender roles will affect the choices (or "choices") women make.

Second, I came across an actual study of the Dutch women's part-time work, and in it I found a reference that may (just may) be the mother of that 4% comment:

The result on the propensity to work full-time is consistent with studies on stated preferences and attitudes towards the employment of women. The SCP (2006) finds that among women who work part-time and do have a working male partner, 96 per cent prefer to work part-time.
Could this be the source of that four-percent figure? Subtract 96% from 100% and you get that. Except that the women asked were not ALL Dutch women but only those who a) worked part-time and b) had a working male partner.

Third, the title of Olien's piece (probably not selected by her, remember) deserves closer attention:

Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles and a big gender pay gap, and they love it
This truly reads as if the Dutch women love having lesser titles and a big gender gap and as if they ultimately work less when all unpaid work is taken into account. It could be that they do love all those things (though I really doubt that they love the gender gap in earnings or having lesser titles).

But decisions have a cultural and social context and Olien's piece doesn't talk about the traditionally Dutch conservative values when it comes to women or the recent re-emergence of these values.

Neither does she tell us if men participate in work inside the home. Research suggests that the role of children is crucial in explaining the prevalence of part-time work among Dutch women:

The probability of working full-time or part-time varies substantially with individual and family characteristics. Women without children are likely to work full-time. This holds in particular for single women without children (Figure 5). Nevertheless, married women born after 1970 without children have a large propensity to work part-time. Children have major implications for employment (Figure 6). A vast majority of married mothers works 12–24 hours per week. Single mothers are less likely to be employed. When employed, single mothers of the generation born up until around 1950 relatively frequently work full-time. Younger generations of single mothers are much more likely to work part-time.
I cannot rule out that Dutch women might just love patriarchy, of course, or that they have no desire for that brass ring at the top of the hierarchy ladders.

But I doubt that very much. Yet that is the undertone in the discussions about this I have read: That women are ultimately happiest in traditional roles and so on.

If the traditional roles cannot be completely achieved by having all women stay at home then part-time at least allows them to do the work at home as well. Because the lens here is on women and how they work we don't learn about Dutch men or their work habits, and neither do we learn much about the cultural rules of the Dutch culture on the whole. I suspect that knowing those rules is imperative for the interpretation of the data. I also suspect that most Dutch regard paid work as something that takes fewer hours than the mythical ideal in the US.