“Sometimes it seems like we’re okay with the economic gap between men and women”

Published on: 6 March 2023

Pay gap, pension gap, loss of purchasing power in divorce, financial dependency. More than 60 years after the abolition of the Incapacity Act, women are still persistently behind economically. On International Women's Day, Parkstad Limburg reflects on the theme of Women and Money. Mariëlle Heuts joins the forum discussion on behalf of APG.


Today, women still get paid less for the same positions as men, are more likely to work part-time and are less economically independent. For the cause, we need to look to recent history, says legal historian Madeleijn van den Nieuwenhuizen. She collects stories about the time when, according to the Civil Code, married women were “incapacitated” - a legal category that also applied to children and the “feeble-minded”.


This law lasted until 1956 and meant, among other things, that as a woman, you could not open your own bank account, take out a mortgage or insurance, and you could only enter into an employment contract with your husband’s formal consent. You would also technically hand over your pay to your husband, because he was in charge of the community of property you would marry into by default at that time. The idea behind this law was that in the union, including the marital union, only one could be the boss. The relentless lobbying of politician Corry Tendeloo led to the abolition of this incapacity to act.


Bizarre. With that one word, Mariëlle Heuts describes the law that was abolished in 1956. Heuts is board secretary and advisor at APG and closely involved in the transition to a new pension system, in which informing and guiding pension participants is an important part. She also helped develop online platforms that provide insight into people's own financial situation. “I kept my grandparents’ marriage booklet. It literally states that the wife owes obedience to her husband. Nowadays, that is unimaginable. After that, by the way, it took until 1980 before the Equal Treatment Act came into being.”

On International Women's Day, you will be joining discussions in a forum about women's economic inequality. What is your motivation for participating in this?  

“Sometimes seems like we are okay with the economic gap between men and women. In any case, development to close the gap is incredibly slow. And that fascinates me. At the micro level, thankfully everyone now takes it very much for granted that men and women have equal opportunities. But at the macro level, it looks like it will be years before the gender pay gap disappears.”


What surprises you the most?
“APG closed the pay gap between male and female colleagues in one fell swoop in 2019 after its own internal investigation. We made the national media with the decision to pay men and women the same salary. That kind of felt like an upside-down world.


But I am also surprised that the Netherlands lags so far behind the rest of Europe, while in other areas we are often seen as an enterprising and progressive country. I visit France a lot privately, where women working full-time is the norm. Here in the Netherlands, we not only have a gap to close between men and women, but also with the rest of Europe.”

What could be the cause of that?

“Women’s rights, as they were established by law, are undoubtedly a cause of this. The traditional division of labor that emerged at that time, even generations later, often still creates social pressure for women to take on most of the family care duties, for example. Also, looking at the current number of women in top positions, there is still a glass ceiling for women, who often see their male colleagues advance their careers faster.


Finally, I don’t think many women realize enough about the effects of certain choices - for example, going to work part-time when children are born. Not only are you signing up for a pay gap during your career, but also for a pension gap afterward.”


Sounds like there’s a lot of work yet to be done, to close that gap. Where should we start?
“It starts with awareness, so good education is essential. I see a role for employers in this. For example, by actively talking to part-time women about how they can be facilitated to work more hours. For example, through more flexible working hours or work from home options. I bet there are a lot more options when you look at reality through a different lens.

Favoring women with a quota is also a common tool. However, I see that more as a tool than a solution. It does not address the source of the problem.

Another role is for husbands and partners; they can encourage their wives. I am reminded of a conversation I had with a female colleague. She took a step up the ladder and got a managerial position. Very nice of course. But her husband didn't like that at all. Because: she was away from home more often, had more responsibility and worked more in the evening. What about the kids? The husband immediately looked to his wife for childcare and not to himself or other solutions.”

And then there are the women themselves, of course. How can they themselves tomorrow close that gap a little bit?

“Start looking for information. There is plenty about this topic on the Internet. Make sure you understand, for example, what working less means, both in the here and now (wage gap), but also for your career and your future after retirement (pension gap). Ask yourself if you would make the same choices based on this information. If you work less, you will later depend on your husband's pension pot. Do you want that? And what if you're no longer together by then? Do you want to run that risk? And discuss this at the kitchen table at home. I have witnessed a divorce in my community where the wife got so much less than the husband. I wouldn't want to experience that. And I wouldn’t wish that on my kids either.


Take a look at your salary too. Women still earn less than men for the same work. On top of that, it is often still a typical woman thing not to negotiate. Or see if you couldn’t work a few more hours. Discuss this with your employer and negotiate your salary. When I took a new step within APG, I asked HR whether my salary was appropriate. It wasn’t even about the money, but I wanted to make sure it had been seriously considered.”


International Women’s Day is also a day to celebrate what is going well, of course. What progress have you experienced yourself and what would you like to pass on?
“Let’s face it, a lot has already changed for the better over the past few generations. For example, my parents encouraged me from childhood to develop myself and earn my own money. Thanks in part to them, I am financially independent. With the full support of my husband, incidentally; I am proud of that too. Buying new shoes with my husband’s credit card? I can’t even imagine that! I am also grateful for the female role models I had. My mother showed me that work and family don't have to get in the way of each other. She always joked that with my father’s income, we paid the fixed expenses and from her income we did the fun things. Both my grandmothers also worked, even in the days when this was not done. So I am not used to anything other than women doing their part. And that is also what I want to pass on to my two daughters. That you can achieve a lot with work. That goes much further than just in a financial sense. Working and being independent is also related to the balance and equality in a relationship. Plus, it’s fun to work and it can be very meaningful.”

Financial independence for women is an important issue at APG. As Top Woman of the Year 2022, APG CEO Annette Mosman is working to increase the financial awareness and financial independence of Dutch women. “Women too often make decisions based on incomplete information; that really has to change,” Mosman said in an interview.
“220,000 euros less in pensions; is that really what women want?” | APG

Francine van Dierendonck, member of the executive board and responsible for participant and employer services and fund operations, also makes the case for financial equality. Speaking at the opening of ABP and APG’s Women and Income Exposition, she said, “Financial independence means you are protected if you get divorced, for example.”