Illustration by Margherita Miani

What Works for Women? Self-improvement versus a social and cultural approach to solve gender inequality at work in The Netherlands

Stephanie van der Raad


We should question the belief that women’s less ideal positions at work compared to men, are their individual duty to undo. This belief encourages women to focus on self-improvement, and ignore and reduce the differences between men and women when it comes to equal payment, leadership positions, professional behavior, maternity leave and other work-related matters. However, when approaching gender inequality at work through cultural structures and established institutions, it seems to boost men’s thriving over women’s. To truly solve the gender gap at work, we should distance ourselves from the unfair notion that primarily individual women should solve gender inequality at work. Instead, I suggest a culture in the workplace, in which agency is not individual but collective. Collective agency might foster an inclusive exploration to improve gender equality at work on a more systemic level in The Netherlands.

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Stephanie van der Raad

Author / Voice

Stéphanie van der Raad is an anthropologist who gained her MSc in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. She has interests in wellbeing, pursuits of happiness, belonging, precarity and human security – especially in the workplace. During her graduate research, Stéphanie explored how Dutch police officers defined and experienced wellbeing at work, and argues that wellbeing is complex because police officers constantly moved between two sides of their wellbeing: risks (dark) and safety (good). In general, she believes that understanding both dark and good elements is necessary to reveal what is meaningful to people, but also essential when we want to challenge harmful practices and effects. View her profile at or contact her at

Margherita Miani


Originally from Udine, Italy, I completed my master in Architecture at the University of Ferrara in 2016. Immediately after I moved abroad, first to Amsterdam and later Berlin, where I still am based.

In the past 6 years I have been working as a landscape architect for several offices, completing various tasks, ranging from large scale urban design projects to more detailed executive planning. Together with the design of public spaces, I always found interesting to explore how an architect can communicate their own idea to the public, especially when it comes to projects that involve participation process.

Drawing has been one of my biggest passion since childhood and in the past few years I have been looking for opportunities to make it a more important part of my professional life. I use my illustrations as a tool to express my inner world, my feelings and thoughts. I also get a big inspiration from observing people around me and I am especially interested in their practices of self care and what makes them feel closer to themself.

Find Margherita on Instagram: @marghe.illustrates.things

Worldwide, there is a persistence of inequality for women at work: fewer women are in top leadership and board positions, and women face more challenges when combining family life and paid work. In The Netherlands specifically, women spend 1.5 times more time on unpaid labor – such as household tasks or caring for relatives – compared to men. Women in the Netherlands specify ‘caretaking for others’ as the reason for not getting involved with paid work, seventeen times more than men. Moreover in The Netherlands, forty four percent of women are financially dependent on their partner or the government, nearly one-fifth of women earn thirteen percent less than men, every year 50,000 women report pregnancy discrimination, only fourteen percent of CEOs in top stock companies are women[1] and women are underrepresented in the Dutch parliament: they hold twenty percent less seats than men.[2] How can we work towards equality for women at work in The Netherlands?

In this article, I draw from my own experiences and thoughts about gender inequality in the Dutch workplace. I also explore neoliberal processes in which women are encouraged to self-improve, while simultaneously exempting cultural constructs from analysis and transformation. As an alternative, I suggest a social and cultural approach in which we are collectively responsible for equal opportunities and outcomes for women in the workplace. But first, allow me to share a personal moment of realization.

Noticing gender inequality at work

The first time I connected my worthiness to my gender was over ten years ago. I played field hockey in the highest women’s league in The Netherlands, and my team received a small fee per person per month. The men’s top team was less successful (they competed in a lower league) and less dedicated (they trained fewer times per week). We discovered that they received a double amount of sports gear, warm meals after training while we ate sandwiches (they were fine but still), and a substantially higher fee per month. Back then, we shared our observations with our club’s financial commission and the management, believing (at least I did) that it was just a misunderstanding. They responded:

You are not here for the money, right? You play because you are passionate.

I am sorry, there is just no money in women’s field hockey.

I was puzzled: men are passionate about field hockey too, why should they receive extra benefits? Why are compensations not based on sports achievements? Why would they imply there is no alternative to this gender gap? And why do I feel ashamed when asking for the same compensation as men? Although I had an amazing time as a top athlete, equal benefits did not contribute to it. And even after my field hockey career, I never cracked this hard nut. Nowadays, I am privileged to work four to five days a week in an interesting and intellectual job, but I also feel financially dependent on my partner. This makes my position precarious.[3] What can I do to alter this?

Be the best woman you can be

I started reading about the issue and noticed that, often, women are held responsible for improving their own wellbeing, self-confidence, choices and positions. For example, anthropologist Ethel Mickey published an ethnography about a US women’s professional business conference in 2018.[4] The conference aimed to improve women’s position in the job market and increase their social capital. After spending a day between female attendees, Mickey wrote:

“By making self-investments, working hard, and getting eight hours of sleep each night, women are told that they will achieve success and happiness in all spheres of their lives […]. The conference encourages women to focus on what is within their control as individuals.”

The keynote speakers and workshop facilitators of the conference defined self-investments as: taking care of the body, pursuing the ‘right’ balance between family and work, timing reproduction wisely, and stimulating happiness as a muscle by exercising positive thinking. Although some women resisted the conference’s content by chatting or leaving the room, most women accepted to take full responsibility for their unequal experiences and outcomes at work. Other social scientists have also noticed that gender inequality at work is blamed on women’s lack of confidence, and therefore women are advised to alter their mindset and build confidence. For example, sociologists Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad studied the confidence culture in relation to work and women and they wrote: “the sources and solution for gender inequality in the workplace are to be found in women themselves, and almost always in them alone.”[5] So, should I believe in myself, work harder and solve the gap by being successful?

Self-improving and successful women ≠ gender equality

Ever since I was a little girl, the Dutch women’s field hockey team has been incredibly successful. However, it has been estimated that today female internationals earn € 20-25,000 versus the estimated yearly salary of male Dutch internationals of € 60-90,000. Now, more than ten years after my moment of realization, two female field hockey players are actively speaking out to question the gender pay gap in top field hockey in The Netherlands. They wonder where this difference comes from, and the answer they usually get is “marktwerking”, which means ‘the process of supply and demand’, a neoliberal ideology.[6] However, when following the logic of the neoliberal ideology, this difference is curious: among many other medals, the two women won gold at European (2019 and 2021), Olympic (2020) and world (2022) tournaments with the Dutch national women’s team, versus one golden medal on a European tournament for men in the same period. It is safe to say that these women are extremely successful, they seem to feel confident and they should – considering they are two of the best female athletes in the world. However, their success and their confidence are not the key to closing the pay gap.

These female top athletes, just like the women at the US conference, are stimulated to achieve equality via their power to self-improve. However, such individualistic approaches exempt cultural constructions. This process is not only visible in gender inequality, but also in ethnic and race inequality. In the US for example, ideologies of loyalty, liberty and democracy form an important part of the American universal identity. According to two cultural scientists, Jon Stratton and Ien Ang, these ideologies are strongly related to the belief that there is opportunity for all: “A good American is one who is loyal to this country and to our creed of liberty and democracy”. They argue that the neoliberal ideology – and its emphasis on meritocracy – ignores a history of exploitation: the dark colonial past relates to issues in the present, such as race exclusion and unequal chances. In addition, the neoliberal ideology creates an illusion of achieving equality through individual improvements only. Following this ideology, actual inequalities are unjustly perceived as people’s own fault.[7]

The social scientists I mention in this article, explain how blaming women for the inequality they experience, hinders people from contesting cultural constructions. For example, Gill and Orgad notice that women are told that they should overcome unpleasant experiences through self-improvement, and they argue that: “This is an act of symbolic violence which systematically denies and discredits women’s experiences. It works by calling on women to be silent – SHHH[8].” Ethel Mickey also noticed these silences during the women’s business conference: “Missing from the conversation are women with inflexible jobs, low pay, or unstable schedules – workers who are one sick child away from being fired.” Moreover, the social scientists write that the individualistic focus on women’s self-improvement boosts shame about making mistakes, vulnerability and dependence. This might explain my feelings of shame when asking for equal compensation ten years ago, and why I never initiated a conversation about the matter until now. By writing this article, I wish to steer away from asking individual women to self-improve and provide an alternative approach: a social and cultural perspective to challenge the gender gap at work.

Processes of gender inequality are also shaped by others

According to anthropologist Sally Merry: “Culture is not just the domain of beliefs and values, but also the product of institutional arrangements, political structures, and legal regulations. As these institutions change, so do beliefs, values, and practices.” She argues that culture is often stated as opposed to modernity, but modern institutions and political structures are also culture. Merry continues that culture is not fixed, but changes constantly.[9] In order to understand how culture is shaped, I also looked at the role of identities and how their shaping is based on errors. In his book, The Lies that Bind, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes:

“The problem is not walls as such but walls that hedge us in; walls we played no part in designing, walls without doors and windows, walls that block our vision and obstruct our way, walls that will not let in fresh and enlivening air.”

He underlines the importance of understanding how identities (of gender, religion, nation, race, class, and culture) are shaped by ourselves and others. Understanding where walls – which for example, relate to or result in gender inequality in the workplace – come from “[…] make[s] it possible for groups, large and small, to do things together.”[10] Like Appiah, Merry also promotes a collective approach for equality. She describes how feminists explore how culture can contribute to increasing women’s rights as an example of how inequalities or suffering are challenged through collective – not individual – action. This also relates to the belief of Michael Jackson (the anthropologist, not The King of Pop) that turning the gaze inward is only part of changing reality. He suggests that in a world of differences, “tolerant coexistence” is possible. Therefore, we need to think of ourselves and critically wonder what we can do better, but also turn our critical thinking to cultural constructions and others.[11] And, to mention one more anthropologist, this also relates to Francis Nyamnjoh’s paper about how people are able to be who they are through the relationship with others. He challenges the general idea that people are only free, when they can prove they are independent. Nyamnjoh challenges this by sharing an alternative, seen in Cameroon societies: “[Agency is] both individual and collective (and in many ways consensual), involving a great deal of negotiation and concessions by the individual and the communities to which they belong both at the micro and macro levels.”[12] Nyamnjoh’s call for collective agency and negotiations and Jackson’s suggestion that storytelling can help people to formulate matters that are outside our understanding, connect with others and help resist certain behavior, relates to Appiah’s aim “to start conversations, not end them.” How do we start such conversations?

A social and cultural approach to solve gender inequality at work in The Netherlands

The first step is seeing through the belief that gender inequality at work is a woman’s individual fault, and move away from language and approaches that relate to neoliberal processes which stimulate women to (quietly) work harder and show confidence. Next, we need to understand how social and cultural processes lead to gender inequality at work. For instance, in The Netherlands gender inequality at work is regularly related to more women working part time compared to men. This seems connected to the ‘pregnancy penalty’: most women in The Netherlands start working part time after their first born child and over time they earn 47.5 percent less (salary, pension, government benefits) compared to men.[13] To encourage women to work more full time, the Dutch government recently started a national campaign: Wil je meer werken? Laat het merken! (translated: Do you wish to work more? Let it be known!).[14] However, this campaign does not question why caring for children is still mainly a woman’s responsibility. Or why it is hard for a heterosexual couple to divide caring tasks evenly, even if the man is motivated as well.[15] Like Ethel Mickey, I would like to suggest that we must practice “discussions of power, inequality, and discrimination” to challenge cultural, social and historical processes that lead to women’s unequal positions in the workplace. While researching examples of how gender inequality is influenced by cultural constructions, I found that local NGO Women Inc. – whose mission is to “Fix the system, not the women!” – lobbies with the Dutch government to invest in measures which make it possible for women to work more or full time, such as free child care. Likewise, when the interviewer asks how the top field hockey players suggest to solve the gap, one of the women champions answers: “It is not up to us to come up with a solution. There are plenty of bright minds who can make good policy, and that is what will really help us women.” They seem to long for a systemic approach that stops using women’s self-improvement as an excuse for change, and frankly, so do I.

I would like to thank Rosalie Post for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.

[1] WOMEN Inc. (2023). Women Inc. themes: werk. Retrieved from:

[2] World Economic Forum (2023). Global Gender Gap Report 2022. Retrieved from:

[3] I experience financial dependence on my partner for several reasons. And although I am in a loving relationship, my situation is more precair than his. In The Netherlands, however, I am perceived as financially independent because my income is at least the national minimum wage. See: CBS (2023). Financieel onafhankelijk. Retrieved from:

[4] Mickey, E.L. (2018). Eat, Pray, Love’ Bullshit”- Women’s Empowerment through Wellness at an Elite Professional Conference. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 48, 103–127.

[5] Gill, R. and Orgad, S. (2015). The Confidence Cult(ure). Australian Feminist Studies, 30, 324-344.

[6] Actual numbers and differences remain unclear. See: NOS (2023). Salarisstrijd in hockeywereld: ‘Hij 90.000, zij 25.000 euro, klopt geen bal van’. Retrieved from:

[7] Stratton, J., & Ang, I. (1994). Multicultural imagined communities. Cultural difference and national identity in Australia and the USA. Continuum, 8.

[8] This is a reference to the SHHH campaign (see: which Gill and Orgad use as an example of symbolic violence of silencing women.

[9] Merry, S. E. (2003). Human rights law and the demonization of culture (and anthropology along the way). Political and Legal Anthropology Review, 26, 55–76.

[10] Appiah, K.A. (2018). The Lies that Bind. London: Profile Books Limited.

[11] Jackson, M. (2012). Between one and one another. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[12] Nyamnjoh, F. B. (2002). Domestication, Agency and Subjectivity in the Cameroonian Grassfields. Postcolonial subjectivities in Africa.

[13] Stelling, T. (2019). Dit is de belangrijkste bron van ongelijkheid tussen man en vrouw in Nederland: baby’s. Retrieved From:

[14] Hoe werkt Nederland (2023). Meer werken. Retrieved from:

[15] Ragna Heidweiller wrote a book together with her partner Samuel Levie. She explores why it is hard to equally divide car tasks, even if both partners want to. Heidweiller, R. (2021). In voor- en tegenspoed (maar alleen als jij de afwas doet). Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar

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