Marriage, divorce and the Dutch labour market

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Edith van Ruitenbeek is a partner at Van Hilten de Vries van Ruitenbeek Advocaten & Mediators (HVR) in The Hague, a law firm specialising in family law and general practice. In this article she discusses women’s economic vulnerabilities after divorce and the need for family policy focused on equality and empowerment.

How economically independent are you? Who is financially responsible for your children’s happiness? These are two questions that pop up in my practice as a family lawyer all the time.

The financial toll of divorce: a gender gap

After a divorce, men are, in general, financially better off than women - at least in the Netherlands, according to official numbers.

Ten years ago women lost 23 per cent of their purchasing power after their divorce, while men gained 7 per cent. Nowadays, since the economic crisis, men, too, are increasingly losing purchasing power, yet the negative financial impact of divorce on women remains much greater.

In Belgium the situation is more or less the same. In Sweden, however, women are much more economically independent, which is why the financial effects of divorce are less dramatic.

Economic independence and emancipation

Gender equality in terms of economic independence should therefore be one of the goals of the Dutch government. Gender equality is, so to speak, not only about rights, but also about power and benefits, and thus about poverty reduction.

We all know that. We promote this in developing countries where programs are set up to educate girls as well as to help them to start up small businesses with the use of micro credits.

How vulnerable are women?

So how can it be that in the Netherlands only 52 per cent of women are economically independent and, even more worryingly, only 54 per cent of women consider it important to be able to support themselves and their children?

These issues are of particular concern when coupled with recent statistics on divorce rates: one out of three marriages ends in separation, and other relationships are at an even higher risk of breaking up sooner or later.

It would appear that Dutch women suffer from an unrealistic optimism, a well-known state of mind in psychology, that disaster only strikes others.

The spousal division of labour 

In my divorce practice, however, alimony for the woman is very often a hard nut to crack. Sometimes this is because, while the marriage was still going strong, there was always enough money and the parties agreed that the woman would take care of the children while the man earned the (family) income - an agreement that falls apart when divorce approaches, or at the very least, is differently interpreted. The same is true in expat marriages.

Sometimes the issue is more or less a question of how to shoulder the resulting dip in funds. Especially when it turns out that, over the years, the wife worked part-time, took care of the children and paid for all the groceries and daily needs, while the husband worked fulltime and paid the mortgage and all utilities.

Splitting up thus means a severe drop in funds for the woman, who is to leave the house, with negative consequences for the children when their main residence remains with her.

Mothers as part-time champions

A good thing, though, is that many Dutch women are in the labour market, in fact even more than in many other countries. However, the Netherlands is at the top when it comes to part-time work.

In the Netherlands, motherhood in most cases is accompanied by a huge drop in personal income as, once the children are born, the majority of mothers do most of the caring for the children and start working part-time, even if they have the same (high) education level as the fathers. The statistics of the Dutch CBS on this (Central Bureau of Statistics) are clear.

On the other hand, however, it should be noted that according to the OECD better life index, the Netherlands shows very high levels of life satisfaction during childhood (over 93 per cent of 11 to 15 year old children), far above the average childhood life satisfaction in the world.

Culture and gender expectations

Some think that Dutch women make these choices because of the fact that most of them grew up with the so-called breadwinner model, in which the father worked and the mother took care of household and children.

This, however, is too simple an analysis. It should not be forgotten that behind this model lies the reality that, not too long ago, in the Netherlands many women had to quit their jobs (for instance in teaching) when they married and even became legally incapacitated and lost their right to vote - a humiliation that was only first repaired in 1958.

The Dutch family model

How deeply cultural was the "choice" on how to divide the responsibility for the various tasks within a Dutch family? This was recently one of the subjects at the 2nd Women’s Leadership Conference, organised by VNO-NCW and the Embassy of Sweden, at the Swedish Chamber of Commerce.

As a former politician, Ina Brouwer gave a lecture based on research she had carried out on gender (in)equality, comparing Dutch and Swedish situations and policies. She concluded that the history of Dutch society - wealthy since the golden age after the Dutch colonies were established - also had its effect on family life and family policy, a trend started by Jacob Cats in de 17th century that laid the foundations for the breadwinner model

Clearly, this division of roles is very deeply ingrained in Dutch society and hard to change. This is in contrast to Swedish society, which has a history of supporting gender equality.

Economic family policy

In Sweden, gender equality is considered the responsibility of the entire government. The government has even published a booklet listing what the various ministers are to contribute to this issue.

The Swedish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs states that the responsibility of both parents for their children is a self-evident point of departure for modern family policy. Further, it emphasises that financial support for families should improve the conditions for gender equality.

With this aim, Sweden has even introduced a so-called equality bonus in 2008 as a clear example of the government’s ambition to strengthen parents' equal responsibility.

Parental equality and emancipation

At first, employers in the Netherlands will likely not be happy when more conditions for parental equality are put on the menu with the aim of creating economic independence - such as longer parental leave for women and men.

But they won’t be happy either when, due to divorces that turn into battles, their employees' sickness-related absences increase, caused by other negative issues, such as poverty-induced stress. As VNO-NCW itself stressed at the conference, the door should be considered open for further discussion and action.

Building an effective policy foundation

If the Dutch government really wants to achieve gender equality in terms of economic independence, a clear vision statement should be developed in cooperation with employers.

Merely changing the grounds for alimony from solidarity to an aim to combat marriage-related reduction of earning capacity, as is actually currently under discussion in Dutch politics, is not enough and frankly fails to cover the complexity of the matter.

Alimony law is not an emancipation tool in and of itself. Conditions to minimise the marriage-related reduction in earning capacity for women and to increase the possibilities for men to take responsibility for caring for their children, should be created as well.

Women’s salaries and enabling choice

Within that perspective, it might be fruitful to make the salaries of women a point of further discussion. According to CBS, there still exists a persistent unexplained reward difference of 8 per cent between women and men.

Of course, the way in which a family chooses to divide the responsibilities for its various tasks goes beyond the bounds of policy. But with the inheritance of ages of policies that have not supported gender equality, some efforts might be expected from politics as well to at least expand upon the options available to families.

What can individuals do?

In my practice I always try to empower clients, either by encouraging them to boost their earning capacity or by encouraging them to share care and upbringing tasks as much as possible.

A small percentage, however, cannot be empowered in that way, due to health problems, behavioural problems or even conduct disorders on the part of at least one of the spouses.

And there are of course also clients - both women and men - who simply do not care about gender equality or economic independence; they just set out to remarry ASAP.

For more information, contact Edith van Ruitenbeek directly or schedule a 30-minute introductory interview free of charge.

Edith van Ruitenbeek


Edith van Ruitenbeek

Edith van Ruitenbeek is an attorney since 1997 and co-founder of van Hilten de Vries van Ruitenbeek Advocaten & Mediators in 2012, the precursor of Van Hilten Advocaten & Mediators...

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