Gender parity: The women are doing ok but the men are doing better

The Netherlands tops the list when it comes to gender equality. Tanja van der Lippe and Joop Schippers beg to differ.

According to the latest edition of the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, the Netherlands has the highest rate of gender equality. In the context of the current discussion the rating is not without significance, but does it mean gender parity has been achieved at last?  

The rating looks like quite an achievement for the Netherlands, but before policy-makers start resting on their laurels we need to know what exactly has been measured to merit the top spot.

The index looks at three elements: reproductive health, empowerment and labour participation. Empowerment is rated according to the number of women MPs and level of education. Reproductive health measures the maternal mortality rate and the number of teenage pregnancies. And labour participation measures the number of women working outside the home.

Working hours

With only 4.3 births per 1,000 young women between the ages of 15 and 19, the Netherlands scores very well and with 38% women MPs we’re not doing too badly either. The Netherlands comes in at 18 out of 208. However, we’re still left standing by all the Scandinavian countries.

The same goes for labour participation. If we look at the number of working hours for women, the Netherlands loses touch with the top scorers completely.

Is this index really an indication of gender parity? We don’t think so. The index is confusing two indicators: the development level of women and the existing differences between the sexes.

According to the UN, female reproductive health during pregnancy and birth is a good indicator of women’s position in society. This may be true of women in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan and Niger (which don’t do very well on this score), but in a country like the Netherlands this no longer holds true.

All Western European countries have excellent health systems and women benefit in equal measure. It would make more sense to measure health gender parity in terms of how health systems, including the development of drugs, influence the life expectancy of women compared to that of men.

The number of women MPs, at least, is based on male-female parity. Over a third of MPs are women but that in itself is no reason to celebrate. Women are still under-represented in the top political and executive jobs in the Netherlands.


The same goes for labour participation. More women are working outside the home compared to a decade ago but only slightly more than half of women are economically independent. Policy-makers have put the norm for economic independence at 70% of the minimum wage. It’s hardly a generous income but even so it is one that is only achieved by a small majority of women, compared to 75% of men. As we said earlier, the Netherlands is vastly behind countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark in this respect.

If we look at the division of poverty, the figures show there are many more women than men who have difficulty making ends meet.


In spite of the UN list there is no reason to be complacent. There is hope, however. Girls and young women have been doing much better compared to men for many years: they reach higher levels of education, take less time to graduate and do so with better results. This is not a uniquely Dutch phenomenon but it does offer a real opportunity for women to catch up in the gender parity stakes in this country.

Women must make the most of their education, and the government as well as employers must do their part to encourage women and remove obstacles from their path.

When it comes to gender parity the Netherlands deserves an encouragement prize rather than a gold medal. As long as the women are doing okay but the men are doing a whole lot better it has a long way to go.

Tanja van der Lippe is professor of Sociology at Utrecht University. Joop Schippers is professor of Labour economics at Utrecht University.

This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant

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