Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Netherlands gender gap

Interesting article in Slate by Jessica Olien: "Going Dutch", which describes how "Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles and a big gender pay gap, and they love it." Much of it rings true, and I particularly like the emphasis on the fact that a gender gap need not be evidence of discrimination (which is not to say that it is not; simply that discrimination cannot be assumed, as it too often is).

One amusing part of the article is a reference to the United Nations' take on the Dutch situation:
"In the spring, the United Nations, suspicious that there was something keeping women from full-time jobs, launched an inquiry to see whether the Netherlands was in compliance with the women's rights treaty."

This sentence is funny for two reasons. First, the notion that Dutch women are insufficiently organized and influential politically to undertake such an inquiry themselves, should they deem it necessary, strikes me as laughable; the UN's funds are limited enough — this is not where it should spend them. But second, Olien completely misrepresents how the UN process works.

Countries that have ratified the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), must submit progress reports once very four years to a UN Committee that monitors compliance. (This process is very similar to the one that brought the UN review of the human rights policies of the United States earlier this month, as described in a post 10 days ago). Past progress reports are available at the UN's CEDAW website (through 2007) and at the website of the UN's Human Rights office (from 2008 forward).

As a party to CEDAW, the Netherlands submitted such a report (its fifth since joining CEDAWin 1991) in February 2010. Reviewed along with the Netherlands were seven other countries, including Egypt, Panama, and Uzbekistan. The Committee's "Concluding Observations" can be found at the UN's excellent documents website, under identifier CEDAW/C/NLD/CO/5. Most of these observations are standard boilerplate, apart from some justified (and, to me, entertaining) criticism of the political party SGP. The discussion of employment and economic empowerment comes in paragraphs 36-39, with the concerns that Olien refers appearing at the end of paragraph 36: "the Committee expresses concern that the Government of the Netherlands overestimates the degree to which part-time employment is the result of women's choice." They offer no evidence for this alleged overestimation, however.

Somehow, all of this does not strike me as adding up to the UN launching an inquiry, as Olien claims it did. [By the way, the Dutch government offers some additional information in a May 2010 memo to the United Nations, noting, among others, that "in 2007 only 45 per cent of the female population aged 15 to 64 earned enough to support themselves, compared to 70 per
cent of the male population" (p. 8). Olien erroneously reports a figure of 25 percent.]

Perhaps the most interesting question raised by Olien's article (and by the Booth & van Ours paper that Olien cites) is the following: Is a gender gap that is largely a result of choice, as seems to be the case in the Netherlands, nevertheless a problem? In other words, should the Dutch government work to convince Dutch women that they should want both more full-time work and a less gendered household set-up? Yes, definitely, according to the UN Committee. But why? The Committee gives no real reason that I can see.

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