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Research-based policy analysis and commentary from leading economists
Female part-time work in the Netherlands
Nicole Bosch Bas van der Klaauw Jan van Ours
5 September 2009
Female part-time work is much more popular and persistent in the Netherlands than in any other
OECD country. A 2001 tax reform that raised the after-tax hourly wage increased female labour force
participation but actually reduced hours worked. This column explains why Dutch women are happy to
In the early 1980s, labour force participation of prime-aged women in the Netherlands was among the
lowest in the OECD. As shown in Figure 1, in the following two decades, labour force participation
increased substantially to almost the OECD average (OECD, 2004). The rise in participation rates was
mainly due to women working part-time. However, whereas in, for example, Scandinavian countries
the incidence of part-time work went down after the initial rise in participation rates, female part-time
work remains much more popular in the Netherlands than in any other OECD country (see Figure 2).
Figure 1. Labour force participation rates of prime-age women (aged 25-54)
During the 1980s and 1990s, part-time work was praised as a way to increase the low female
participation rates. However, the attitude towards part-time work among policymakers has changed.
Now, a part-time job is often considered a trap in which the full potential of women remains
unexploited. Part-time working women are paid less and have fewer opportunities for promotions.
Therefore, increasing working hours would be beneficial for their labour market position. Stimulating
female labour supply is also considered to be a potential source to increase economic growth and deal
with the costs of an ageing society.
Figure 2. Proportion of employed women aged 25-54 who are in part-time jobs
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In 2008, the “Committee on Labour Force Participation” installed by the Dutch government argued
that the high number of part-time workers is one of the main weaknesses of the Dutch labour market.
The committee advised the government to stimulate participation rates and increase working hours,
particularly among women. To stimulate non-working women to enter the labour market and working
women to increase their working hours, income tax rules should be changed to make work pay more.
Labour supply and taxes
The plea for labour supply incentives through a change in income taxes is not new. In fact, in 2001
there was a tax reform in the Netherlands that had these features. Prior to 2001, all individuals had a
general tax allowance and additional tax allowances for working and parenting. It was possible to
transfer unused tax allowances between partners. Due to the progressive nature of the Dutch tax
system, it was financially unattractive for women to work at a low income if they had a high-income
partner. The 2001 tax reform replaced the general allowance by a tax credit, a reduction in tax,
independent of the marginal tax rate. The tax credit was still transferable between partners, but the
total tax reduction would not be affected by the transfer. Therefore, the tax reform reduced the costs
of entering the labour market. Moreover, the 2001 tax reform also reduced marginal tax rates. As
shown in Figure 3, the magnitude of this reduction differed substantially between income levels, being
the highest around the average taxable income of women (15,000).
Figure 3. Marginal tax rates before and after the 2001 tax reform
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Source: Bosch and Van der Klaauw (2009)
We find that the Dutch tax reform of 2001 increased female labour force participation by about 3.5
percentage points (Bosch and Van der Klaauw 2009). This effect is mainly attributable to the shift
from tax allowance to tax credit, which made work much more financially attractive for women with a
high-income partner. The effect of the changed marginal tax rates was small and insignificant. More
precisely, women slightly reduced their working hours in response to receiving a higher after-tax
hourly wage. Overall the tax reform increased average weekly hours of work by 0.4, which is about
2% of average working hours in the population.
Why tax incentives don’t increase working hours
Apparently tax incentives are better at stimulating participation than increasing working hours. The
key question is why women do not increase their working hours when it becomes financially more
attractive. Recent surveys by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) provide some insight
into the motivation of women working part-time (see Portegijs and Keuzenkamp, 2008; and Portegijs
et al., 2008). Dutch women report being satisfied with their part-time jobs. Only 4% of women
working part-time would prefer to work fulltime. In other countries with much lower rates of part-time
work, this percentage is much higher (e.g. 15% in Germany and Denmark and 30% in France and
Spain). An important reason is that part-time jobs are much more institutionalised in the Netherlands
(Bosch, Deelen and Euwals, 2008). Whereas part-time jobs are often marginal jobs in most countries,
relatively high-skilled work can be done part-time in the Netherlands.
Initially, part-time work was popular because it allowed women to combine work and care for young
children. About 40% of both Dutch men and women think that the family would suffer if the woman
would work full-time. This opinion has not changed much during the past decades and across
generations. Although part-time work among men is higher in the Netherlands than in most other
countries, men are not expected to reduce their working hours when there are young children in the
Taking care of (young) children is the most important reason for part-time work for women. Women
often reduce their working hours after their first child is born. Indeed, part-time work is highest
among women with dependent children. However, as shown in Figure 4, women without dependent
children also often work part-time. Usually women do not increase their working hours when their
children become older. And young women without children often choose not to work full-time after
leaving full-time education.
Figure 4. Distribution of weekly working hours for women with and without children
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Source: Dutch Labour Force Survey.
Other important reasons mentioned in the SCP surveys for working part-time are housekeeping,
having time for oneself, and having time for friends and hobbies. Furthermore, it seems that financial
need for long working hours is less severe for Dutch women than for women in other countries. In the
Netherlands, less than 40% of women indicate that they do not work less because of financial
constraints. In other European countries, where many more women work full-time, over 50% of
women say they do not work less due to financial constraints. It should be noted that due to
part-time work, about 25% of working Dutch women earn less than what would be considered the
minimum income for being financially independent.
Finally, there is the issue of the distribution of household work and paid work within the family. Van
Ours (2008) notes that if women increase their working hours, their tasks in the household are not
taken over by their partner. Figure 5 shows how hours of household work change with increasing
hours of paid work by women whose male partners have a full-time job. Clearly, the burden of the
additional paid working hours is not shared. For each additional working hour, women reduce
housekeeping by 33 minutes, while men increase housekeeping by only 6 minutes.
Figure 5. Hours of household work by hours of women’s market work; 2000
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Source: Van Ours (2008).
Without part-time work, female labour force participation rates in the Netherlands would not have
increased as fast as they did in past decades. However, whereas part-time work was a transitional
phase in Scandinavian countries, part-time work is more persistent in the Netherlands. Women are
satisfied working part-time, because relatively high-skilled work can be done part-time, full-time work
is not a financial necessity, and the burden of additional working hours is not shared within partnered
families. Whereas financial incentives have been successful in increasing female participation rates,
they have hardly influenced female working hours.
Bosch, N., A. Deelen & R. Euwals (2008), “Is part time employment here to stay? Evidence from the
Dutch labour force survey 1992-2005”, IZA Discussion Paper 3367.
Bosch, N. & B. van der Klaauw (2009), “Analyzing female labour supply evidence from a Dutch tax
reform”, CEPR Discussion Paper 7337.
OECD (2004), Female labour force participation: past trends and main determinants in OECD
countries, Economics Department, Working Paper.
Portegijs, W., M. Clo¨ın, S. Keuzenkamp, A. Merens & E. Steenvoorden (2008), “Verdeelde tijd:
waarom vrouwen in deeltijd werken”, Sociaal Cultureel Planbureau. (In Dutch)
Portegijs, W. & S. Keuzenkamp (2008), “Nederland deeltijdland: vrouwen en deeltijdwerk”, Sociaal
Cultureel Planbureau. (In Dutch)
Van Ours, J.C. (2008), “De Nederlandse vrouw die meer wil werken staat onder dubbele druk”, Me
Judice December 23, 2008. (In Dutch)
This article may be reproduced with appropriate attribution. See Copyright (below).
Topics: Labour markets
Tags: female labour force, The Netherlands, part-time job
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