Financial independence for women does not equal influence

Women may be on the way to become financially independent but the top jobs could still elude them, writes Ester de Bruine.

‘An irreversible trend shift’, commented demographer Jan Latten. Research done by CBS showed that the percentage of working women earning more than their partners has gone up in the last ten years from 13% to 19%.

The news even made it into the front page headlines. ‘Women who earn more than their male partners are not unusual anymore,’ the Volkskrant wrote. Trouw’s headline was slightly more cautious: ‘Women are starting to become the main breadwinners’. Seeing that women were forecast to storm this particular bastion as early as 2009, it reminded its readers, this 6% increase is perhaps a little disappointing.

This is a good time to evaluate the figures: is this a breakthrough for the emancipation of women or is its significance being exaggerated? And perhaps we should have another look at the term ‘emancipation’: what exactly do we mean by it?

Crisis emancipation

First off, we need to look at the figures. These may be enhanced by the recession. Many women have started to work longer hours in order to compensate for the loss of earnings caused by their partner’s unemployment. They could do so because, more often than not, women work in the service industries, while men often have jobs in manufacturing, a sector badly hit by the crisis.

In other words, this is crisis emancipation, which means that women may return to part-time work once their partners are back in work.

It is even more important to contemplate what this growth, no matter how big or small, means for the emancipation of women in a broader sense. We are mainly concerned here with an increase in the economic independence of women. Only 48% of Dutch women are financially self-sufficient. Education minister Jet Bussemaker expressed her concern about this in a controversial interview last year. That figure should ideally be higher, but these figures could conceivably be taken as a step in the right direction.

But apart from economic independence, acquiring influence also forms part of the emancipation process. And that is where it has been stalling. Well-educated women go on to become professionals. They choose to become judges, psychologists, teachers and doctors. They then work in organisations led by men.

This week Ruth Porat, financial director at American banking giant Morgan Stanley, commented that the lack of women in the top jobs at big corporations is shameful. She also said the top brass at the Wall Street banks is 100% male. 


The same is happening closer to home. According to research done by Egon Zehnder in 2012, only 12.5% of management jobs in the Netherlands are filled by women. Only 2% of women occupy the top jobs, with the exception of the culture sector in which no less than 35% of top executives are female.

A different picture emerges abroad, with Norway heading the list with a whopping 36% of top jobs occupied by women (after it introduced a quota for female directors).

Six months ago, during a debate at my old student union at which my opponent was senator Heleen Dupuis, my defence of a gender quota didn’t go down well. Women want to make it on their own merits. They want to be asked because an employer thinks they will be able to do a good job.

As a psychologist, I am primarily interested in the subconscious convictions which are guiding women’s ambitions and convictions about their capabilities. And I’m also interested in the influence exerted by the (few) exceptions to the rule, and that of the selection committees which, subconsciously, see a picture of a man when they think of that robust new leader they are going to appoint.

Women may be becoming more financially independent but I fear they won’t be more influential. The danger is that they will be stuck in middle management. In ten years’ time the official photos of a meeting of world leaders (or CEOs) could still look as if the women have taken time out to go to the toilet.

Ester de Bruine is head of career coaching organisation Loopbaanonderhoudsgroep.

This article appeared earlier in Trouw