Most Dutch women work a 2- or 3-day week -- and love it. Now the idea is starting to catch on here
As Irish career women steam ahead in a determined effort to crash the corporate glass ceiling, the majority of Dutch women are happiest in part-time jobs with lots of free time to do as they please.
Ellen de Bruin, author of Dutch Women Don't Get Depressed, says: "Dutch women like to have it all -- a man, a job, children and time off for themselves. They don't have to choose."
And statistics bear out what she says. Part-time work remains more popular among women in the Netherlands than in any other OECD country. According to a Eurostat 2009 labour-force survey, 76% of Dutch women aged 25-54 work part-time compared with only 34% in Ireland.
They may earn less and have limited promotion prospects, but according to journalist Jessica Olien in the online magazine Slate, this is what the liberated ladies of the Netherlands want. "They work half days, meet their friends for coffee at 2pm and pity their male colleagues who are stuck in the office all day," she wrote.
It certainly paints a rosy picture to a frazzled Irish mum trying to get the kids ready before her daily commute in rush-hour traffic.
But are our Dutch cousins, with their new take on a traditional role, paving the way for a new model for European women, or is this a blow to the feminist struggle for equality in the workplace?
In Holland, part-time work is the preferred option not only among mothers with families to look after. Two-thirds of Dutch women without children also work part-time, making this a clear lifestyle choice and they don't feel in the least undervalued because of it. According to de Bruin, Dutch women are bossy, especially when it comes to getting men to help out in the home, and their men like it that way.
"Oh, I've always been bossy!" says Corry van Embden, who came to live in Ireland over 50 years ago. I'm saying nothing. She's my mother-in-law. And bossy.
"World War Two made Dutch women very assertive," she says. "I remember the RAF dropping food and it was the women who went out on the streets lined with dead bodies to find that food for their children. They had to be very independent at a terrible time and it gave rise to a strong solidarity among women which has lasted to this day.
"When I left Holland, women were starting to arrange job-sharing with friends, and when they had it worked out they would bring the plan to their employers and say, 'I will work mornings and she will do the afternoons'. And then they would look after each other's children so they didn't have to pay a fortune in childcare.
"Today, Irish women seem to work all the hours God sends and unless they make a commotion, they'd be left to do most of the housework too.
"My husband and sons all did their share of the housework.
"Women need to network with each other to make things happen. Don't leave it up to the men or the politicians -- Dutch women do it for themselves."
If we walked in their clogs perhaps we could learn a thing or two about work-life balance from these women who like to schedule 'me-time' along with family commitments, hobbies, work and socialising into their average week.
But that's easier said than done. While the Netherlands has made a conscious effort to make part-time work more attractive, with tax laws structured in such a way that part-timers take home more of their income if it stays lower, Ireland has no such policies in place and many companies are conservative in their approach to recruitment.
"Irish employers don't support flexible working practices as much as they should," says Sophie Rowan, coaching psychologist at Pinpoint Career Specialists.
"In this country, it is mainly when family kicks in that women's and men's career paths diverge. That's when many women would like to have part-time or job sharing options, but often they have to either leave the workplace or return to work full-time because there are no alternatives to suit family commitments.
"Employers really need to explore ways to provide flexible working practices that truly support women coming back to work after having a family, and support the business. These women have a great contribution to make and the real loss is to Irish business."
Sophie knows herself the attraction of combining flexible working with raising a family. When her son Michael was born two years ago, she cut her hours as a partner at Pinpoint to three days a week in the office, and she fits in another day at home around her son's schedule.
"It wasn't a decision I took lightly because obviously there are financial considerations involved, but my husband works long hours and we didn't want our son gone from 8am to 6pm," she says.
"For me, it was the ideal choice as it gives me flexibility and control over my career and allows me to have more time with my son, so on my day off I do mum-and-baby stuff."
She also found time to write a new book called Brilliant Career Coach -- How to Find and Follow your Dream Career which is due to be published by Pearson this summer.
"It was a six-month project and I had to be extremely organised. With a lot of support from colleagues, family and friends, I worked hard to complete it, but as I tell my clients, if you set your mind to anything, you can do it.
"As the industrialist Henry Ford famously said, 'Whether you think you can or think you can't, you're right'."
Three years ago, Edel Freeman quit her three-day-a-week job as a human resources manager to set up Part Time Professionals (PTP) recruitment agency to help other people achieve their dream part-time job and already has over 400 people on her books.
"As I saw an increased demand for part-time jobs among professional people, I decided it was a niche business and I went for it.
"Most of my clients are women with children who want to either get back to work or reduce their working hours. These are typically women with 15 to 20 years' experience in areas such as IT and finance, and they have a lot to offer.
"If a part-time job becomes available, I have no trouble filling it. The challenge is educating employers about the benefits.
"Small to medium enterprises often have one manager filling several roles and if they employ a part-time professional to look after a particular area of expertise, it can free up the full-time manager to focus on what he or she needs to do. You end up with happier managers and a more effective business."
For further information: www.pinpoint.ie www.ptprecruitment.com