Gender equality process falling short of targets

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A government-commissioned report published in late 2004 finds that the process of achieving gender equality in the Netherlands is falling short of objectives set by the government. Growth in women's labour market participation is lagging behind the targets set; despite being educated to a higher average level than the male workforce, the number of women being promoted to high-level positions is stagnating; a recent survey indicates that employers believe that working part time and occupying a high-level or managerial position cannot be combined; and pay discrimination appears to be persisting. Partly in response to criticism expressed by the European Union, the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment has promised to intensify equality policy. He has also given the social partners an important role in implementing policies directed at combating pay discrimination.

According to the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, Aart Jan de Geus, the process of ensuring equal opportunities for women and men is stagnating or, at the very least, lagging behind target. Three of the main elements of the government's policy in this area (known as 'emancipation' policy) are a growth in female labour market participation, an increase in women's social and political participation and a greater number of women in high-level positions. The current female labour market participation rate of 55% (in 2003) lags behind the target figures set within a 'long-range emancipation plan' covering the period up until 2010. At the current growth rate of 1 percentage point a year, the 65% target for 2010 will not be achieved. Strong growth in labour market participation among women was achieved particularly in the 1990s, with the rate rising from 39% in 1990 to 52% in 2000. Significantly, differences in participation have almost vanished between women with and without children. The proportion of women who resign after the birth of their first child dropped sharply from 25% in 1997 to 10% in 2003. Among ethnic minority groups, Surinamese women have the same level of labour market participation as indigenous women, at 57% in 2003, but the rates among Turkish and Moroccan women are 29% and 28% respectively.

Economic independence and part-time work

The economic independence of women has been a key element in government policy (and feminist arguments) for decades. Measured as the proportion of earning 70% of the net minimum wage, the rate of economic independence rose from 25% in 1990 to 41% in 2001. The target is an annual increase in this rate of 1.75 percentage points. However, this is unlikely because the increase in labour market participation will fall below this level. The difference between what men and women earn remains large: on average, women earn a little less than 50% of the earnings generated by their male counterparts in the workforce. Such disparity can in part be explained by the high percentage of women who work part time.

In comparison with other European Union countries, the percentage of Dutch women holding part-time positions has been high over the years and this trend appears sure to continue. The proportion of women who work part time has continued to increase, from 50% in 1990 to 66% in 2003. This figure relates to jobs involving more than 12 hours of work a week. Women who work part time are mainly - though not exclusively - mothers with young children. On the whole, however, there is a trend among women with full-time positions to opt for part-time work if given the chance. As such, growth in labour market participation among women is achieved mainly in the part-time job category. The number of women with full-time posts hardly rose between 1990 and 2003, while the number with part-time jobs grew by 16% during the same period. Some 15% of male workers are part time, also one of the highest rates in the EU, although those involved are mainly young men, students and older employees. Strikingly, this category also includes a small group of highly qualified men in their 30s who more often than average among men hold part-time positions. In contrast to the level of growth in part-time work among women, the level of growth among men is nonetheless negligible.

Part-time work and high-level/managerial positions

Equality policy not only focuses on increased labour market participation, it also targets career development. In addition to increased social and political participation, the government would also like to see more women being employed at a decision-making level within businesses. The educational levels of women and men now provide every reason for this to occur. On average, the level of education among working women is slightly higher than that of men: most employees; 39% of women and 37% of men in the workforce have completed secondary education as their highest qualification; while 30% and 28% of women and men respectively have higher-level qualifications. However, the greater average percentage of women qualified at a higher level is not reflected in high-level positions. While the number of women in high-level positions has risen, the figures lag behind the average increase. The proportion of women among higher and university level professions rose from 33% in 1994 to 39% in 2002. The share of female managers is lower: they made up 14% of the total in 1994 and 25% in 2002. At 13% in 2002, the business sector scores far below the non-commercial services sector, where 36% of the managers are women. While part-time work is not the only factor at play here, it does appear to form a big obstacle.

From a representative study conducted within the scope of the 2004 Emancipation Monitor published by the Social and Cultural Planning Office (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, SCP), it appears that 58% of all employers feel that working part time does not fit with holding a high-level, managerial position (Emancipatiemonitor 2004, W Portegijs, A Boelens and L Olsthoorn, The Hague, SCP/CBS, 2004). The managerial capacities of women are rated just as highly as those of their male counterparts - it is the costs believed by employers to be associated with part-time work that fail to weigh up against the benefits. Of all the employers involved in the study, 42% share the opinion that carrying primary responsibility for caring for children cannot be combined with managerial tasks. In the study, these views appear decisive in influencing the current low proportion of women at all levels of the organisation, especially in managerial positions. In cases where employers support a 'structural' and 'decisive' policy, the proportion of women is higher at all levels of the organisation. The impact of company policy directed at easing the combination of work and care tasks, appears to be of little influence in itself; only career development coaching programmes for women appear to be successful. Female employers also stand out in a positive light: they more often support emancipation policy and the proportion of women at all levels within the organisation headed up by them is greater. The researchers concluded that the views of the employer and the ramifications of these throughout the organisation form a significant barrier for emancipation of the higher organisational levels.

Based on these findings, the authors of the 2004 Emancipation Monitor - which is commissioned by government - conclude that the equality process is falling short of the target figures set by the government They attribute the delay to the poor economic situation, along with a policy in this area with little clout. In December 2004, the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment acknowledged that policy should be intensified, but expects the results of recent measures to become visible only from 2005 onwards.

Pay discrimination

Pay differentials between men and women appear to be persisting, according to the findings of a recent study from the Labour Inspectorate (De arbeidspositie van werknemers in 2002. Een onderzoek naar de verschillen in beloning en mobiliteit tussen groepen werknemers[The labour position of employees in 2004: a study into differences with respect to pay and mobility between groups of employees], The Hague, 2004). In 2002, women earned an average of almost 20% less an hour than men - unadjusted. Adjusted for age, working hours, job level and job type, and collectively agreed provisions, a discrepancy of 6% remains. Unexplained and therefore unjustifiable pay discrepancies are greater in the business sector than in the public sector. On average, women earn around 22% less than men in the business sector - even after adjustment, an unexplained pay discrepancy of 7% remains. In the public sector, women earn an average of 14% less than their male counterparts. This can also be partly attributed to working hours and job level, but a pay discrepancy of 3% remains after adjustment. Because women occupy around three-quarters of part-time positions, it is important to consider pay discrimination amongst part-time employees. With a wage gap of 5%, part-time employees in the business sector experience pay discrimination. An unjustifiable discrepancy can no longer be identified in the public sector in comparison with previous assessments conducted in 2000.

Policy intensification

Based on the research findings outlined above, in late 2004 Minister de Geus promised the Lower House of parliament in the government's 'Fourth progress report on equal pay' (Vierde Voortgangsbrief Gelijke Beloning) that equality policy will be intensified,. The minister stated that the government, the social partners and the Equal Opportunities Committee (Commissie Gelijke Behandeling) have been intensively engaged in combating unequal pay practices since drafting an equal pay action plan in 2000. This policy was implemented using various instruments and based on information provision. However, in recent years, the adjusted, unlawful pay discrepancy between men and women and between Dutch nationals and employees of foreign extraction has remained practically the same. Further, the adjusted pay discrepancy between full-time and part-time employees has even risen. The minister believes that a new policy is called for, especially in view of the Dutch National Action Plan (NAP) for employment and the EU’s response to it, stating that the Netherlands must address the causes of the gender gap in terms of equal pay (see below). In the new policy, the minister intends to emphasise the implementation of specially developed instruments, such as an 'equal pay quick scan', 'equal pay management tool' and 'gender-neutral job evaluation handbook'. These instruments should promote compliance with the law.

The equal pay quick scan registers pay discrepancies, while the management tool can be used to determine whether the differential concerned is unjustifiable or unlawful. The management tool was to be established definitively by 1 January 2005, whereafter employers and works councils can apply it broadly. The gender-neutral job evaluation handbook has been well received. As part of the intensified information campaign, different (simplified) equal pay instruments will be offered via the internet, especially for employers.

Social partner activation

Along with government, the social partners and works councils will have to play a more active role in achieving equal pay, under the Minister of Social Affairs' plan. In drafting the equal pay action plan in 2000, the social partners stated that they see combating pay discrimination primarily as a task for themselves. At the time, the government adopted a supportive role. The social partners are now being asked to activate an equal pay checklist they developed and to republish it. The Minister of Social Affairs has also asked them for their opinion on the manner in which equal pay can be included in forthcoming bargaining rounds. The social partners have also been requested to issue a recommendation on the establishment of an equal pay task-force such as that already in existence in the UK (UK0402104F). This temporary 'boost' should, it is planned, give publicity to the issue, showing employers and trade unions what they can do and providing instruments with which to combat unequal pay and invite constructive debate. There is also a role for individual employers and employees since actual discrimination takes place at a company level. The government is offering simplified equal pay instruments and asking employers to use them broadly, in order for them to ascertain for themselves if unjustifiable pay discrepancies still exist with their company. Employees are also asked to undertake action. For example, the minister cites a 'wage indicator' initiated by the Dutch Trade Union Federation (Federatie Nederlandse Vakbeweging, FNV), which employees themselves can use to determine if there are in fact receiving appropriate pay. In cases of alleged discrimination, employees could put their case before their employer, the works council or the Equal Opportunities Committee.

EU employment guidelines

Combating unjustifiable gender pay discrepancies has been given high priority at European level too. The employment guidelines for the EU Member States adopted by the Council of the European Union in July 2003 (EU0308205F) state that: 'Member States will, through an integrated approach combining gender mainstreaming and specific policy actions, encourage female labour market participation and achieve a substantial reduction in gender gaps in employment rates, unemployment rates, and pay by 2010. The role of the social partners is crucial in this respect. In particular, with a view to its elimination, policies will aim to achieve by 2010 a substantial reduction in the gender pay gap in each Member State, through a multi-faceted approach addressing the underlying factors of the gender pay gap, including sectoral and occupational segregation, education and training, job classifications and pay systems, awareness- raising and transparency.' To the extent that discrepancies are not caused by unequal, unlawful payment practices, but follow as a result of the lower job level of women, policy directed at increasing career opportunities for women to be promoted to higher positions is certainly important.

The employment policy recommendations adopted by the Council for individual Member States state that in the Netherlands, 'although the female employment rate exceeds the EU target, the gender pay gap is still comparatively high'. The government is called on to, 'further develop, together with the social partners, a strategy for addressing the factors underlying the gender pay gap'.


The EU employment guidelines adopts a broad approach to the issue of pay discrimination. The issue is imbedded in social, labour market phenomena such as horizontal segregation, education and training, job evaluation and payment systems. By way of the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, the Dutch government states that it will give priority to combating pay discrimination in its policy. Instruments developed such as the equal pay quick scan or the gender-neutral job evaluation handbook should lead to the eradication of discrimination and also contribute towards increasing awareness and transparency with respect to job evaluation and payment systems, as recommended by the EU. Concerning education levels, there is little left to 'emancipate' in the Netherlands. However, existing gender segregation patterns in the labour market can be traced back to the choice of subjects in education. In short, girls tend to opt for care and boys for technology. Government campaigns to encourage girls to 'choose the sciences' have had little impact; the care sector continues to attract more women. Nonetheless, government can exert pressure on pay - more specifically on underpay in the care sector. And this also applies to government - as an example to employers - with respect to increasing numbers of women in high-level, part-time positions. Whether the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment wishes to address this problem in such a consistent - and European - manner, remains to be seen. It is, however, clear that the minister is developing new initiatives concerning pay discrimination, and this is perhaps already more than the minister had initially intended when he announced his plans in 2003 to scrap emancipation policy because indigenous Dutch women were already fully emancipated (NL0312102N). (Marianne Grünell, HSI)

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