You recently wrote a piece for de Volkskrant in which you expressed your outrage at the latest figures concerning women’s emancipation. What is the problem with those?
“There are all kinds of indexes and monitors that keep track of how the Netherlands is doing. From the biannual emancipation monitor issued by the Statistics Netherlands (CBS) and the Social and Cultural Planning Office (SCP), to the Dutch Female Board Index.
“These last figures were greeted with great enthusiasm across a wide range of media, although these same figures show that there are more people named Peter on Dutch management boards than there are women. Let that sink in for a few moments. At the Erasmus University, the president of the Executive Board subsequently proudly announced that 20 per cent of professors are women. One-fifth. These are incredibly embarrassing figures. At moments like these I think: We are still living in the fifties.
You are also angry about the term ‘part-time princesses’ in the article. Why?
“It shows that women in the Netherlands are perpetually being problematised. If you work full-time, you are a bad mother. If you are a full-time mother, you could be accused of being a disgrace to our education system – because you probably have had a costly education at the expense of the state. You can see from this that women are given the monopoly on emancipation. They are the ones who do not conform to the norm, and they are the ones who constantly have to defend themselves in that respect. Men, on the other hand, are allowed dispensation when it comes to emancipation. No minister has ever been asked if the emancipation of men is making any progress. This reveals a deep-rooted sexism, a masculine model that is fairly firmly anchored in all kinds of laws and regulations. It is patriarchy at its finest. I see it as my job as a political sociologist to unravel that.”
How are things at home with this political sociologist?
“Oh well, of course, you are always asked about your personal situation when dealing with this topic. My girlfriend and I both work full-time and we have don’t have any children.”
So why the fascination with this topic?
“Why not? We also increasingly see how a collective issue is foisted onto the shoulders of the individual. This is by no means a given.
The Netherlands as a patriarchal society: That’s not exactly the idea that we all tend to have, is it?
“No. We like to wallow in a discourse of progressiveness and egalitarianism. But that is not at all consistent with how we organise our society. We always talk about the emancipation of women, but the very use of the term implies a fundamental inequality and dependence on men. The word emancipation comes from Roman law. Mancipatio, or more specifically emancipatio, is derived from a rite of passage whereby property was transferred from the father. As such, the emancipated person was merely a passive recipient, a derivative. This etymological origin resonates in how we think about it all today. Emancipation still implies dependency and a disadvantaged position.”
What is the alternative framework that you would prefer to place it in?
“Thinking in terms of emancipation perpetuates existing dependencies. Just like a term such as integration – as Willem Schinkel once described so eloquently – does as well. Since the 1970s, we have pursued national policies aimed at emancipating women. Again and again, we rig up the male hoop to make women jump through it. And then we say: This isn’t good enough yet, without asking ourselves which norm we are perpetuating in doing so. We have to ask ourselves the question: How can we organise work and care in this country in a radically more equitable way?”
Since 1 July 2020, fathers have been eligible for five weeks’ leave. Are we on the right track?
“The way in which care for the family is shared is unequal right from the birth of the first child. Partners were given two days’ leave until last year, after which they would return to the workplace, cheerfully smiling as if nothing had happened. Progressive members of this society are now very proud that those two days have been extended to a couple of weeks during which only 70% of the salary continues to be paid. In other words, this is legislation for the happy few who could afford it anyway. Moreover, it is still disproportionate to the 16 weeks that women are on leave. The consequence is that employers tend to think: ‘I’ll go for the inflexible man after all, because I’ll soon lose that woman for four months.’
So let’s turn to the topic of childcare. Should it be free of charge for everyone?
“That’s really a no-brainer for me, as it’s the easiest way to even out the burden fairly between women and men. The reason why there is such a huge scandal about this in The Hague, is because you almost need an academic degree in mathematics to understand how you can claim childcare allowance and how much that allowance is. Surely, it’s about time we got upset that we haven’t organised this properly in the Netherlands yet?
Simple, then: free childcare for all and a generous, mandatory parental leave scheme?
“Yes. You can see in all of the countries around us that those are the first steps towards a more equal problematisation of each other’s contribution. These are just preliminary steps, because it does not stop there. The problem is simply that in the Netherlands, ever since the seventies of Den Uyl (a former Dutch prime minister, ed.), we have had one sacred principle: Freedom of choice. That is why we relegate these kinds of deliberations to the kitchen table. That’s where husband and wife are left to work out how to divide up the chores. We only see that this choice is not a true choice because it is so pre-programmed that in nine out of ten cases it turns out negatively for the woman. Then you can no longer speak of freedom of choice, but of a structural imbalance that you need to work on in a systematic way. In addition to paternity leave and free childcare, there are numerous studies from countries around us that demonstrate what works. How to compel men to take compulsory leave, for one thing.”
Sander Schimmelpenninck gave a fierce rebuke to your article. In his podcast, he suggested another solution: Punish a woman who receives an expensive, publicly-paid education and then goes on to work part-time or not at all.
“And so, what’s the idea behind that then?”
Build in an incentive that prevents women avoiding working during their lives.
“You know, the problem with that kind of rhetoric is that – by blaming women – you pretend that there is freedom of choice here. With that kind of logic, you are a representative of patriarchy par excellence. And this is not the only example. Even a progressive party like GroenLinks (Green Left) fully subscribes to the VVD’s frame of mind: the hounding of women on the labour market. What we in the Netherlands call progressive on this issue is in fact extremely conservative. And that will not change until The Hague provides other frameworks or there is widespread public discontent.
“I would focus on creating incentives that show that you are championing radical equality. Then, all of a sudden, people will make different choices. Very quickly, employers will come up with all kinds of measures to facilitate pregnancy and take time off work. Until then, you can’t expect much from individual choices, whether they are made around the kitchen table or in the boardroom.
“I do find it remarkable that in the Netherlands you first have to pass by Sander Schimmelpenninck if you want to speak out about emancipation. That says something about the intellectual climate surrounding this topic.”
How do you account for the Netherlands being so conservative in this area?
“Employers have an unprecedented influence on policy in the Netherlands. In the neoliberal polder mentality, everything revolves around economic growth: The employability of staff and limiting inflexibility, along with the costs of leave. As long as that is an important leitmotiv, you will not be able to pursue a progressive policy on this issue. Besides that, we don’t like the government telling us what to do. It is the self-image of those 15 million people: All of us wonderfully headstrong and recalcitrant together.
“But that is what gets in the way of thinking about how our lives are actually determined by structural interference. In this country, people no longer want to hear about social structures and collectives, because that smacks of old stories about the state, the union and the church. And ‘we got rid of all that in the 1960s, didn’t we?’ Yet these larger structures determine to a large extent our so-called individual and autonomous lives.”
Does the corona crisis represent a turning point? Or will we soon be singing the praises of hyper-individualism all over again?
“I fear the latter. Last year we saw how everything in our lives transcended individual choice: health, well-being, happiness, safety. But when the country opens up again, I fear we will be out of control. Down with anything that has to do with the lockdown. What’s more, it could well be that collective organisation, constraints and state intervention will then be associated with a time that we no longer want to go back to.”
So much for optimism.
“What makes me optimistic is that – despite all these conservative forces that surround us – there are still voices that are standing up and saying: ‘This is no longer acceptable.’ That is not only in The Hague. It is happening at…”
…Volvo, for example.
“Yes, and the same applies to organisations such as Unilever. Organisations you might not expect that from. But they see that employees need better support than the government is providing. So, hopefully things will improve. But the Netherlands is lagging behind in Europe; that’s the harsh reality.”
Mark van Ostaijen is a sociologist at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. He earned his PhD with a dissertation on migration and mobility in Europe and is author of Wij zijn ons: Een kleine sociologie van grote denkers (‘We are us: A small sociology of big thinkers’, Boom, 2020). He regularly engages in public debate from the perspective of his field. On this topic, he wrote a passionate argument in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant: Full-time working men are perpetuating the unequal position of women on the labour market.