Those “part-time princesses” are already pretty busy


The benefits of getting more women to work longer hours in paid jobs do not outweigh the social and economic costs, argue Ans Merens, Wil Portegijs and Maroesjka Versantvoort.

The Dutch labour market has never been tighter and many sectors, healthcare and education among them, are struggling with staff shortages. Cue women working part-time as the obvious solution, trotted out by politicians both during the elections and during the negotiations to form a new government.

If only women worked more, that tight labour market would soon loosen up and, at the same time, men and women would be that much more equal, they proclaim. What is stopping women from doing that little bit extra? A day or two more wouldn’t kill them, would it?

Spare time

What is stopping them is several things. Women who work part-time don’t necessarily have the time to spare. Men are spending more time doing paid work while women look after kids, needy parents and do the household chores. If you add up the hours of paid and unpaid labour, the averages work out about equal.

On weekdays women may have more spare time while men have more time off during the evenings and weekends. Think of the men who go out cycling on Saturday or Sunday morning while their partners look after the children or do the shopping.


Another misconception is that children can “simply” go to a daycare centre. An important reason why women work part-time is to look after their children. They are at home for their children one or more days a week, and sometimes their partners are as well. The remaining days of the week the children go to daycare, usually supplemented by a day with the grandparents or other relatives.

If mothers were to work longer hours (and grandparents too) the demand for childcare would spiral. Childcare centres are already overwhelmed and understaffed. And most people don’t think children benefit from spending four or five days a week at a creche.

“So what if you don’t clean your windows every week,” politicians and policymakers tell women. But women have already cut down on a day’s housework in the last 40 years, hours that have not been taken over by their partners. Those windows haven’t had a weekly clean for a long time.  Windows aside, that still leaves half a working week’s worth  (20 hours), or eight hours more than men, to spend on household chores.

Elderly relatives or aquaintances

And then there is the role of informal carer, which, policy makers have decided, should not stand in the way of an almost full working week.

It does, actually. One in four working people combine work and caring for a relative with health problems, women more often than men. Caring for parents (in law) who need help is one of the reasons women are not keen to work longer hours when their children have left the nest. And rightly so: long-term care is not compatible with a full working week.

An ageing population and an increasing number of people with chronic impairments will almost double the number of elderly who need care by 2040. The government is relying on relatives to shoulder much of that care.

The value of paid work is expressed in nation’s GDP. We do not have a comparable unit to express the value of unpaid work. But if the care of children, the elderly and the home had to be outsourced to paid employees, it would gobble up a quarter of that GDP. And that is just the monetary value. If we are talking emotional value, work comes in fourth place, after family, social contact and leisure.

Not many people facing their final hours on this earth regret they didn’t get more out of their career. What they do regret is not spending more time with their family and friends.

The final and wide-spread misunderstanding is that working more hours is hardly worth it, for instance because it would affect top-up benefits. But in fact it would only be a very small group, mainly made up of full-time working bread winners and one-person households, that would not benefit financially. Most women who work part-time have a partner who works full-time, and their combined income makes them ineligible for healthcare or rent benefit anyway.

As long as the vitally important, unpaid work around the home is shouldered mainly by women, and the possibilities for childcare or formal care are limited, women will continue to work part-time. And society should be thankful instead of dismissing them as part-time princesses,



Ans Merens, Wil Portegijs and Maroesjka Versantvoort are researchers at the socio-cultural think-tank SCP.

This column was first published in the NRC.

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