A new legislation expected to be enforced on January 22 in the Netherlands will push companies to adhere to benchmarks set by the government regarding gender diversity in the workplace.
The purpose of the law introduced by Ministers Sander Dekker and Ingrid van Engelshoven has been divided into two parts. Firstly, it imposes a quota of at least one third of each—males and females—in every company’s supervisory board. Furthermore, it mandates that large private and public liability companies must determine objectives regarding the ratios in both their boards and senior management staff that are reasonable yet ambitious. To ensure the success of the bill, authorities will monitor the progress of each organization annually throughout the eight-year period during which the rule will be enforced, as well as reevaluate the need for any further steps three years prior to the deadline of January 22, 2030.
Minister Dekker has stated that this bill “should not have been necessary.” Even though this is true in an ideal world, it is largely because of measures and the efforts of brave and notable women such as Anna Barbara van Meerten-Schilperoort. Who was a pioneer in the Dutch feminist movement and was attributed the creation of the first women’s organization in the country. It is because of her efforts that the rights of females have slowly started becoming more similar to those of their male counterparts.
Still, a long way is left ahead, not only to achieve equality in society, but also to reach a point where there is an agreement of what equality means. Throughout the different groups affected by the approval of the law, there are great disagreements regarding its impact and effectiveness.
On one end of the discussion, opponents to gender quotas in the Netherlands have been systematically arguing against policies similar to this one in contexts such as universities and workplaces, since they consider it a diminishment of individual freedom. They claim that women have less interest in certain fields, which gives men a predominant role in them, and that jobs should be accessed by the most deserving and qualified people, found through a gender-neutral recruitment process. However, by approving this measure, the Dutch Senate seems to acknowledge that this type of headhunting is not enough to counterbalance the many times women are put in a position of unfairness due to the stigmatising biases that surround them in professional and personal fields.
On the other hand, supporters of gender quotas point out that a bill addressing this issue has been a long time coming, since many other European countries have already imposed such measures to try to create gender balance in companies. Many people adhere to this view, such as Herna Verhagen, chief executive of PostNL, and Nancy McKinstry, chief executive of Wolters Kluwers. “I always strongly believed in meritocracy and that women would find their own way to these leadership positions over time. But I realized about two or three years ago how little progress we had made,” said McKinstry, who changed from supporting a meritocracy-based system to a quotas system, and added, “I believe that a quota will speed up the process.” She also argued that she “continued to hear people mention in the boardrooms that there just weren't enough qualified women, and that's simply not true.” Like her, many people believe that it is not due to a lack of qualifications and interest that women are not in leadership roles as often as men, but rather due to sexism in the workplace.
However, many of the supporters of quotas find the approved text mild and improvable—especially in areas such as the diversity at the executive level, the assessment of this diversity in company policy and the way in which the quota would be enforced in case of non-compliance—due to its similarities to other unsuccessful measures that have been in force since 2013, after which the vast majority of the boards (roughly 80%) has not yet achieved the expected 30% of female representation.
Others would even take it further, arguing that making a difference only at the highest levels of the hierarchy chain of listed companies is not enough. Some political parties, such as the Socialist Party, have made concerns regarding this matter public. Similarly, Dr. Barbara Baarsma, CEO of Rabobank Amsterdam and an Economics professor at the University of Amsterdam, believes that “full-time jobs should lead women to the top” and that “the problem is not the glass ceiling, but a sticky work floor tiled with little part-time jobs.” According to the European Parliament, in 2021 the Full-time Equivalent Employment Rate shows only 39% of women employed compared to 58% of their male counterparts. This system of measurement was created to compare the employment rate of men and women while it also “takes into account the higher incidence of part-time employment among women.”
This has been a fight as any other—with casualties, setbacks, and small victories that some consider worthy—ever since the beginning of the 19th century, when only a handful of women took part in it. These women earned descriptions such as the one given to van Meerten-Schilperoort by University of Groningen professor Mineke van Essen, who referred to her as “exceptional for an early 19th century woman”. Through the decades, the cause became more widespread and gathered masses that engaged supporters in different ways to provide the movement with further victories. Such is the case, for instance, of the Dutch Council of Women, which has gathered members of several women’s organizations since 1898 with the purpose of connecting them to lobby for legislation like the aforementioned one.
It can be argued that the most important win regarding equal gender rights is that women, like those mentioned throughout the article, have gained a voice to express their opinions. The bill passed on September 29 appears to be the next necessary step for the Dutch Senate towards a society in which the broad scope of opportunities which the Netherlands is known to offer is made available to everyone equally, regardless of gender.
by Ju Laclau Massaglia