On the surface, the Netherlands looks like one of those typical highly emancipated northern European societies. A country that has long been seen as a beacon for social liberalism surely must have a highly active women labour force?
Wrong – the Netherlands has one of the worst records in the EU for women’s participation in the work place. This is as true of the boardrooms of Dutch pension funds, where women are still very much a minority, as of other sectors.
“Women in the Netherlands work too little and for too short a period of time,” says Gerdi Verbeet, a Labour PartyMP.
“It’s a sad state of affairs, particularly when you compare us with the rest of Europe,” adds Joan Ferrier, director of E-Quality, which is an independent knowledge and expertise centre for female emancipation in a multicultural society.
According to the Netherlands’ Central Bureau of Statistics, only 55% of women aged 15 to 64 have a paid job, compared with 75% of men. Of women in paid jobs, 72% work part-time, compared with only 19% of men. Of all the women active in the workforce, 16% work only 12 to 19 hours a week, and 16% work for less than 12 hours.
Because Dutch women work relatively little compared with men, it comes as no surprise that they have not been able to make much progress into the top levels of corporate power. Although there are always a few exceptions, it is still a rarity to see Dutch women running companies, sitting on boards or leading institutions.
“Women are under-represented in most Dutch board rooms, including the boards of pension funds,” says Verbeet.
“Most boards of pension funds are still dominated by white men in grey suits,” says Ferrier. Both Ferrier and Verbeet agree that the ‘old boys’ network’ is still very much a factor to be reckoned with in the Dutch corporate world.
“I think the board of a pension fund should be an exact representation of the amount of women participating in a particular fund. I know of one board, which runs a pension fund for pharmacists’ assistants, that does not have a single female board member. I think that is wrong, particularly given the fact that most pharmacists’ assistants are, after all, women.”
Verbeet notes, though, that women are better represented in management positions and on boards in the pension world than in some other sectors. “That is because the unions are very active in pensions,” she says. “And traditionally, the unions have always employed a lot more women than other sectors.”
Both Verbeet and Ferrier agree that the lack of women in high places in Dutch society also has a lot to do with women’s own attitudes and strategies. “It is fairly common in our society for women to stop working, or work less once they have children. It is not exactly frowned upon when that happens. The reality is that we need women to work more, not less, but for some reason you cannot say that out loud,” says Verbeet.
Verbeet warns that low levels of female participation in the workforce will have “grave consequences” for women once they decide to retire. The Dutch social security system used to be based on the notion of a traditional nuclear one family, each with a male breadwinner who took care of his partner in retirement.
However, recent changes in government policy means increasing numbers of women will have to start taking care of their own pension plans. “Most women really have not got a clue what the consequences are for their pension plans, once they stop working, or start working part-time. Right now, Dutch women are not building up enough funds to enjoy a good retirement. That is why I am calling on the government to start a nation-wide campaign to inform people about the state of their pension plans and how to improve them,” Verbeet says.
Francis van Bergenhenegouwen is one of the founders of VIIP, a network for Dutch women in the pensions industry. “The world of pensions is still very much male-dominated”, she says.
“One of the reasons we founded the network is that we wanted to give women in pensions a chance to meet each other and swap experiences. Men have always been good at networking, and I cannot see why women would not be able to do the same thing.”
The network, whose members range from a politician to pension fund directors and investment managers, meets three times a year for discussion. “It has been a real exchange of ideas and knowledge,” says Van Bergenhenegouwen.
Van Bergenhenegouwen, who is institutional sales manager for Delta Lloyd, reckons “90%” of people she meets at pension meetings or conferences are men. “There are about 800 pension funds in the Netherlands, and there are only 12 women directors. The reality is that good women are hard to find. A lot of women work part-time and have no time to sit on boards. I also think part of the reason there are so few women in pensions is that the subject matter is perceived as quite dull and dry. But I think women have a lot to add.”
Verbeet and Ferrier agree. “Women will always look at how certain policies or regulation affect other women. Besides, pensions are something most women should be good at. Look at all those women in charge of their family’s finances,” says Verbeet. “Women look at things in a different way, simply because they are women. More women on pension fund boards will add a lot more diversity to pension policy,” says Ferrier.

Else Bos is director of investments at the Netherland’s second-biggest pension fund, PGGM, which looks after the pensions of 1.8m health care and social workers. “I have never had as many women around me at work as I have now. We have five directors of investment, and two of them are women,” she says. “I come from a banking background, and I think the finance sector is a lot more difficult for women to work in than pensions.”
Bos, who leads a team of six managers (three men and three women), says she has never had to deal with the ‘old boys’ network’.
“I think, to a large extent, your career path is really down to what you put into to it. I see a lot of women around me trying to do it all: career, family, hobbies, study, etcetera. At the end of the day, these sorts of combination are not an easy thing to do. For example, most jobs on a managerial level are difficult to do as a part-timer. You have got to make your choices. I know from experience that this can be a tough choice, but it is one that most women eventually will have to make.”
Bos says her choice for a full-time career was made a lot easier because of her “very emancipated” family base. “If you cannot rely on your partner to do certain things, a full-time career is out of the question.”