At 37, Remco Vermaire is the youngest partner in his law firm. His banker clients expect him on call constantly — except on Fridays, when he looks after his two children.
Fourteen of the firm’s 33 lawyers work part time, as do many of their high-powered spouses. Some clients do, too.
“Working four days a week is now the rule rather than the exception among my friends,” said Vermaire, the firm’s first lawyer to take a “daddy day” in 2006.
Within a year, all the other male lawyers with young children followed suit.
For reasons that blend tradition and modernity, three in four working Dutch women already work part time. Female-dominated sectors like health and education operate almost entirely on job-sharing; even childless women and mothers of grown children trade income for time off. That has exacted an enduring price on women’s financial independence.
However, at the same time, in just a few years, the four-day workweek here has ceased being a woman’s prerogative and become a powerful tool to attract and retain talent — male and female — in a competitive Dutch labor market.
Indeed, for a growing group of younger professionals, the appetite for a shorter, more flexible workweek appears to be spreading, with implications for everything from gender identity to rush-hour traffic.
The Dutch culture of part-time work has in a sense fast-forwarded history, offering a peek at challenges — and potential solutions — facing nations with aging work forces and skills shortages.
“Our part-time experience has taught us that you can organize work in a rhythm other than nine-to-five,” said Pia Dijkstra, a member of Parliament and well-known former news anchor who led a task force on women’s work practices. “Now, we have to take that to the next level.”
“The next generation is already doing it,” she said, pointing to a growing trend toward more flexible work practices. “They are turning our part-time culture from a weakness into a strength.”
The Netherlands may be famously liberal, but traditional gender stereotypes are strong.
The country has long sought to keep women at home. From 1904 to 1940, 12 bills banned categories of married women from paid work, perpetuating the tradition of domestic motherhood.
The first part-time jobs for married women came with early labor shortages in the 1950s. However, it was not until 1996 that the government gave part-time employees equal status with full-timers; in 2000 came the statutory right for all workers to determine the number of hours they work. An employer can object, but must demonstrate serious obstacles. Requests are rarely declined, at least overtly.
On average, men still increase their hours when they have children. However, with one in three Dutch men now either working part time or squeezing a full-time job into four days, the Papa dag, or “Daddy day,” has become part of the language. Nearly a quarter of Dutch men have reduced hours, compared with 10 percent across the EU and in the US.
Dutch fathers are vocal about altering their work-life balance. The government awarded a Modern Man Prize for breaking gender stereotypes. Rutger Groot Wassink won for co-founding a campaign that promotes part-time work for men — and for working four days a week himself.
“Men have been excluded from this debate for too long,” said Wassink, noting a poll showing 65 percent of Dutch fathers would like to work less.
And many are making significant shifts. In Tilburg, near the Belgian border, Radboud van Hal leads talent recruitment at Achmea, the largest Dutch insurance company. He breakfasts and dines with his family, and plays soccer on Wednesday afternoons. He still works a 40-hour week.
At his 19-story office building, employees have smart phones, laptops and lockers, but no designated desks. The seven work spaces for every 10 staff workers will drop to six next year.
The trend is moving into international companies as well. At the Dutch Microsoft headquarters, Ineke Hoekman, head of human resources and mother of two, used to work part time. However, in 2008, when the company moved into a space without designated work stations and employees were told to work “anywhere, any time,” she gradually went back to full time. Her team lives with Friday conference calls from her son’s soccer practice.
Aspects of this “new world of work” concept have been exported to other Microsoft offices, including Norway, France and Australia, but the flexibility remains broadest in the Netherlands.
Ninety-five percent of Dutch Microsoft employees work from home at least one day a week; a full quarter do so four out of five days. Online communication and conference calls save time, gas and paper.
However, even as men reach for part-time work, Dutch feminists worry about the enduring damage it has done to women.
Seventy-five percent of Dutch women who work are part-timers, compared with 41 percent in other EU countries and 23 percent in the US, according to Saskia Keuzenkamp at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.
At 70 percent, employment of Dutch women is high, but they work on average no more than 24 hours a week. More than half — 57 percent — are considered financially dependent, earning less than 70 percent of the gross minimum wage, or US$1,300 a month. Only four of 20 members of the Cabinet are female and 60 percent of the firms listed on the Amsterdam Euronext stock exchange have no women on their boards.
According to Ellen de Bruin, the author of Why Dutch Women Don’t Get Depressed, Dutch women do not seem to mind much. She says that 96 percent of Dutch part-timers tell pollsters they do not want to work more; the Netherlands is that rare country where — even taking housework and child care into account — women work less than men. A 2006 study showed that only 16 percent of Dutch urban women aim to reach the top and just 10 percent would sacrifice family time for a career.
“We always rank low in the gender equality rankings, but we rank high on happiness,” said de Bruin, a journalist.
For now, part-time work remains most entrenched in areas where women are heavily represented.
Of the 85 specialists at the Ziekenhuis Amstelland Jewish Hospital south of Amsterdam, 31 are female and two-thirds work part time. Some surgeons even train part time, meaning a struggle to unify treatment of patients by several doctors.
“This would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago,” said Jacques Moors, the hospital’s chairman. “But if we insisted on full-time surgeons, we would have a personnel problem: Three in four of our junior doctors are female.”
In male-dominated fields, the picture is more mixed. After Martina Dopper, a civil engineer at the company Ballast Nedam, requested a three-day week in 2007, she was given to understand that part-time meant no promotion.
This month, she was promoted.
“I hope this means more of my male colleagues will get an opportunity to spend more time with their families,” she said.
However, so far, her husband — also an engineer — does not dare for fear of jeopardizing his career.
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