What’s your dissertation about?

“I checked how creating and maintaining a family influences labour market participation. Creating and maintaining a family involves care work, such as raising children, informal care for elderly, or housework like cooking and cleaning. This care work is very valuable for our society, we cannot do without it. On the other hand, it takes up a lot of time, so if you’re raising your kids, you have less time to do paid work, which means you work less and could become financially dependent on your partner. So, for example: I researched if having a child, or tending to a sick parent, influences your paid work hours.”

How did you conduct your research?

“This was pretty cool, because in the Netherlands there is very good administrative data, collected by the government on all inhabitants. You can, for example, combine demographic data with information on health and taxes. From a researcher’s point of view, this is very nice. I could not have done this in Switzerland, for instance, because there are a lot of privacy concerns, so these kinds of linked data are not available.”

What did you find out?

“It is possible to combine taking care of your sick parent without reducing your paid working hours in the Netherlands. One of the reasons for this is that the long-term care system for the elderly is very generous in the Netherlands.

“The results are different when having children. Raising children requires a lot of unpaid care work. In this situation, Dutch fathers maintain their work hours, while mothers reduce their hours a lot. And since there are quite a lot of women who already work parttime after they have had children, they have more flexibility to accommodate caring for a sick parent in their schedules.”

sara rellstab phd padel zoom video (EM)
Image credit: Levien Willemse

Have you found reasons why so many women in the Netherlands work parttime?

“There are many explanations for this, and I looked at one in more detail. Specifically, I tried to explain my finding that only women reduce their paid work hours after having children and men do not. My hypothesis was that gender norms play a role in this, because of the perception we have that care tasks are women’s tasks and I found evidence supporting this. Then, I have to add that, in my opinion, the ‘problem that women work parttime’ that is often talked about does not cover the real issue. Rather than criticising women for working parttime, we should ask ourselves why men do not work parttime more often.”

Do you think your thesis will make a difference?

“I’m a pragmatist, so I don’t think my research will immediately change the world. But I still hope that it will give some attention and valuation to all the unpaid care that is being done. Also, maybe there are some couples who will ask themselves why they divided the tasks in a certain way, and if it’s financially safe for both in case they split up.”

How was the PhD process for you?

“There were ups and downs. I had great supervisors and learned a lot, both about the topic I was researching but also about myself. What I found difficult is that you don’t have a lot of success moments. Two or three times a year you’re at a conference, where you present your work and get feedback. Otherwise, it’s up to you to motivate yourself on a day-to-day basis, and this can be extremely hard. I clearly underestimated this when I started. What helped me was that I had friends outside of academia, to relativise the importance of work. Having a hobby also helps. In my case this was playing in a brass band.”

How does it feel to close this chapter of your life from afar?

“I think I haven’t fully realised it yet. On the one hand I’m proud to have finished the thesis, but on the other hand I still have two of my chapters left to publish. That means I’ll still be working on parts of the thesis even after graduation.”

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