Is Women’s Emancipation as Far Advanced as We Think It Is?

 Women's emancipation is still discussed today since there is still a battle to be won.

14 minutes to read
Julia van der Staak

As we have seen in the review of the movie ‘The Help’, based on Kathryn Stockett’s well-known book of that name, gender stereotyping plays a big role in the story. As the story takes place in the early 1960’s, the typical division of tasks between men and women is emphasized. It is expected of men to work fulltime and provide for their family, whereas women are housewives, taking care of the children and instructing housemaids. One of the main characters, Skeeter, is thought of as strange since she wants to pursue a career in journalism and therefore postpones the prospect of marriage.

Contemporary perspectives

In contemporary Dutch society, we believe we are far removed from what seem to be almost ancient beliefs on the division of tasks between the sexes. Women have gotten far; numbers show that girls do well in school and tend to obtain better grades than boys (Gnaulati, 2014), and it is considered to be almost self-evident that women have jobs. Moreover, domestic tasks seem to be more equally divided between men and women.

However, women still haven't broken through the glass ceiling. Shockingly, few women hold top positions. Only 1 out of 3 political candidates during the elections is female (Peters, 2017). Experimental studies have revealed that the difference between female and male names on an identical CV and application letter, results in a different perception of competence levels and job offers (Moss-Racusin et al. 2012, as cited by Ellemers 2016 p.279). Women tend to be the ones to take a step back from their careers, either by quitting or by working part-time, as soon as there is talk of starting a family.

These findings bring us to the main question to be discussed in this essay, namely: ‘Is women’s emancipation as far advanced as we think it is?’

Defining Gender

It is important to note that unlike in the 1960’s, we have a better understanding of how gender should be defined nowadays. Essential is the difference between gender and sex. Sex is the biological difference between male and female bodies, and gender is the cultural meaning of these differences (Peters, 2016). Gender diversity exists in every culture, also in the Netherlands. There are many different gender identities, including cisgender, transgender and gender fluid.

Peters (2016) further explains that what determines someone’s gender exists of three elements: gender identity, gender expression and sex. Gender identity is the cultural meaning of gender that the person itself is most at ease with when describing themselves. Gender expression is how a person shows themself to the outside world. The actual sex a person is assigned at birth plays a role as well.

Gender can be a sensitive, and sometimes misunderstood, topic. A very current example is when the well-known Dutch retail chain Hema announced that they were going to make gender neutral clothing for children, meaning no longer labelling and thereby defining clothes by the words ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ (Jansen & Riepema, 2017). Hema says they want to enable children to be who they want to be: “cool girls, sweet boys, real princesses or budding astronauts". No longer differentiating between boys’ and girls’ clothing is not a new thing in the fashion industry, but Hema was the first retail store in the Netherlands to publicly address the issue.

The responses to this announcement varied from supportive to online mockery – from ‘Everything Hema does is fine. As long as the smoked sausages stay’ to ‘We are never going grocery shopping at Hema again’. However, by installing changes like these, they reach out to those people, however small or big a proportion of the population that is, who do not feel as if they fit into society’s existing categorizations. 


Figure 1: ‘The Genderbread Person, visualizes the different components of gender’

Gender stereotyping affects both men and women

Gender is far more complex than simply the distinction between male and female. This complexity will be investigated further in this essay in order to analyse the emancipation of women in today's society.   

Before we start analyzing women's emancipation, it's noteworthy to look at the flipside of this issue as well. Stereotypical images of gender are also projected on men. Whereas women are often shown as being oppressed, the assumption that men consciously want to keep the upper hand should not be made lightly. Many men are feminists as well and gender stereotypes also affect men in negative ways, such as regarding their physical appearance.

Whereas it's expected of women to be slender and feminine, men should ideally be tall and muscular. Being a stay-at-home dad is looked down upon, because this does not fit the standard set by society in which the man is the financial caretaker of the family. Similarly, think of men who want to obtain jobs that are usually ascribed to women, such as becoming a nurse or a kindergarten teacher. When men pursue such careers, people tend to wonder: ‘why isn’t he aiming higher?’

That being said, we will look further into these stereotypical associations and what this means for both sexes career- and family-wise.

Figure 2: ‘Traditionally an American wartime propaganda piece in which a woman was depicted to encourage women to work as their men went to war. Now depicted with a man to address the issue of gender stereotyping’

Stereotypical associations

As Ellemers (2017, p.280) states, private, implicit beliefs often rely on stereotypical associations – without people realizing that this is the case. In computerized reaction time tasks for example, people more quickly connect names and faces of women to various aspects of family life, whereas names and faces of men come more easily to mind when thinking about professional careers (Greenwald & Banaji 1995, as cited by Ellemers 2017, p.280). Additionally, occupations such as policing are dominated by men, whereas other occupations, such as nursing, are dominated by women (Jarman et al, 2002, as cited by Ellemers 2017, p.277),

This is stereotypical, but there seems to be a tendency for men to prefer having positions where they have agency and for women to have positions in which their biological predisposition for caring can be used. Additionally, when the role one plays professionally doesn't match gender stereotypes, it has an impact on the choices women and men make. Women are restricted in their professional choices, as they struggle between having both the characteristics of a good mother and a good worker (Williams et al. 2016, as cited by Ellemers 2017). When women start earning more money than their husbands, they increase the amount of time they invest in household chores, rather than decreasing it, seemingly to not disturb the stereotypical behaviour that comes with being a good wife (Bittman et al, 2003, as cited by Ellemers 2017, p.287).

it wasn’t until the 1950s that changes really started to take place regarding women’s emancipation. 

Doubtless, the biological differences between men and women also play a role in life and career choices. As it is biologically determined that women carry children and therefore simultaneously, yet sometimes unconsciously, are connected to family life in the first months of the baby's life. As a result of this and the social and cultural norms and political decisions we see that women tend to be the ones taking a step back career wise when starting a family. There are also differences in the testorone en oxytocin levels  produced by the different sexes, which enhances certain characteristics, such as assertiveness in men and caring in women (Ellemers, 2017, p. 277).

Accordingly, gender differences are often seen as deeply rooted in evolution and hard-wired in the brain, reflecting the different roles and survival values of agentic versus caring behaviors for men and women living in hunter-gatherer societies.The combination of hormone levels and gender differences determined by evolution might contribute to why women generally opt for different careers than men. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if we want women to break through the glass ceiling, the reasons why society tends to stick with gender roles and the different values people attach to these roles should be further analysed.  

Women, Work and Family Life

The NPO documentary ‘The Happy Housewives’ tries to give insights into why women’s emancipation is not as far advanced in Dutch society as we might think and hope (‘De Gelukkige Huisvrouw’, NPO). As stated at the beginning of the documentary, the Dutch are typically described as ‘Calvinistic and frugal' . They also prefer not to diverge too much from what is considered to be 'normal'. The typical Dutch housewife is confident and independent, and above all an equal to her husband. However, it is very much a Dutch custom that the man takes care of everything ‘outside of the house’ and the woman of everything ‘inside the house’. These types of cultural constructions serve as societal legitimations of unequal roles in society. 

Interviewer Leo gives the example of him having to do chores outdoors when he was young, such as mowing the lawn, while his sisters had to do cleaning chores inside. As historian Els Kloek further explains, Europe was relatively rich in earlier times, meaning that women were granted the opportunity of not having to work (Ibid, 2017). Quite a paradox when compared to the views on non-working women today. What used to be a privilege, according to Els Kloek, is now looked upon as inequality.

After the first World War women in the Netherlands urged that they should get the right to vote ("WO I: Vrouwen aan het werk", n.d.) As women had contributed to society by taking over the men's work while they were at war, women felt that they should be heard by society as well. Despite the objection of confessional parties who claimed that women would be distracted from their 'moral duties', the amendment to the constiution was made on December 12, 1917, granting women the right to vote. 

If we truly want women to work full-time and reach those top positions, society needs to take into account that many people have a family, and that the possibility should be there for parents to adjust their jobs to the schedule of their children.

However, as the documentary mentions, the battle for emancipation did not really begin until the 1950’s, after the wars. By which they mean that when after the First World War women thought they could get to work they had to make way for the men who reclaims their jobs after the war, additionally they were restrained by the Great Depression, which was followed by the Second World War. Many young girls nowadays cannot imagine that this happened only 60-70 years ago. Lots of things have changed for women regarding education and work. However, Dutch women are still the champions of working part-time. Sometimes because women want to (or are socially and culturally conditioned to wanting to stay home), other times because it is necessary for a family to make a living. A part-time working mother of three who is portrayed in the documentary, states ‘I am ambitious, but not at the expense of everything. Eventually my family comes first and I have arranged my life according to this’ (Ibid, 2017).

Her statement is the ideal depiction of the situation Dutch housewives and Dutch working women are in: they want to work and they want to care for their family, leaving them to compromise on both aspects. Not necessarily because the husband does not want to cooperate, or because their bosses are not flexible, but because it is difficult to have both at the same time and it is inevitable that you have to make decisions on whether you want to be a fulltime worker or play a key role in your family. Which does not mean that a combination of both is impossible, it is just very difficult to manage. You need to have a job environment that works with you on matters like dropping your kids off at school or tending for them when they get ill; you might need a partner who supports you, and financially speaking, everything needs to be in order as well. Society is simply not adjusted to this yet. We still discuss these issues today, because there is still a battle to be won when it comes to women obtaining high positions in various fields of employment (Ibid, 2017).

As Heilman (2001, p.663) writes, the criteria for judging the performance of most upper level positions in organizations are vague. People holding such jobs are mostly judged on personality descriptors such as being charismatic or courageous, rather than looking at actual quantifiable or objective measures (Stumph & London, 1981, as cited by Heilman 2001, p.663). As mentioned earlier, just seeing a woman’s name on a CV that is exactly similar to a man’s CV can still lead the viewer to think there are different levels of competence between the two. So in the case of obtaining an upper level position, it can be more difficult for women as there are no concrete criteria and personality descriptors, and features like ‘courageous’ are usually ascribed to men.

Additionally, quite similar to how the housewife in the NPO documentary stated that her family comes first, Peters (2016) discusses other interesting reasons why women do not hold top positions, in her case in Dutch politics. She concludes that women just do not want to. They don't want to crawl their way up in what is traditionally a man’s world and they feel more at ease with a man in power. All of this indicates that if there is a desire for women to reach the top in their careers, there still is a long way to go.

Cultural Norms

Cultural norms, meaning the agreed-upon expectations by which cultures guide the behaviour of their members in any situations ("Culture and Societies" n.d.), play a key role when it comes to emancipation. The cultural norm of women working has over the past decades changed from being unheard of to being accepted. As mentioned earlier, it wasn’t until the 1950s that changes really started to take place regarding women’s emancipation. Ever since, women have become more highly educated and the percentage of women who have a job has risen. Yet, it seems as if everything has come to a halt as women run into the issue of having to take care of family life, as well as managing themselves professionally, which is ultimately the reason why many women turn to part-time jobs.

Society is still changing and adapting to the new cultural norm of women working. Think of people who still hold on to the traditional pattern of women tending the home and men providing for the family, versus families in which both parents have full-time jobs. The balance between the traditional norms and those in society who adhere to the modern norms of women working, making careers and holding top positions is changing ever so slowly. Perhaps it will take some more generations for these changes to be fully implemented in society.

Our society today could be labelled as ‘hybrid’, which means that it consists of multiple components. Think of people from different backgrounds, nationalities, ages, genders, and so on. In this case, as we look at gender, men are the more dominant group when it comes to holding top positions as opposed to women, who are not in numbers a minority, but they are in terms of cultural norms. Yes, it could well be that women prioritize their family, that some prefer having a man in charge, and that they do not aspire to hold high positions, but an alternative has never been seriously tried. Women have never been the majority at the top, the numbers have not even been close to equal. The average woman’s opinion might change once it is considered normal for women to hold such positions. 

What could be beneficial for stimulating these social changes, is the attitude of schools and workplaces. If we truly want women to work full-time and reach those top positions, society needs to take into account that many people have a family, and that the possibility should be there for parents to adjust their jobs to the schedule of their children. This may sound like a ridiculous plan to some, but it really isn't. If changes like these don’t happen, it will always remain the case that one of the parents has to make sacrifices in order to take care of the family. 

Figure 4: Different cultural norms, meaning different stands and outlooks in society.


This essay has provided a brief overview of modern perspectives on women’s emancipation, gender diversity and stereotypical ideas surrounding gender differences.

In conclusion we can say that women’s emancipation is still a work in progress. Women have come a long way from where they once started, but there is still a lot that can be achieved. The process of change is there, but it moves very slowly. Everyone in society is located somewhere on the continuum of change regarding women’s emancipation. Some still adhere to the old cultural norms, whereas some accept the modern views, and many people are somewhere in between the two. The effect that a major change such as this causes in society, is that everyone is at some point confronted with their own opinion on the matter. In the light of us all being different multicultural individuals, meaning that every individual comes from a different background, has different beliefs – for example on gender differences and emancipation - and adheres to different cultures and subcultures, it is only natural that we have different ways of dealing with societal changes.

What is of importance today, if we want to install changes, is that women should be met by society on important needs, such as combining work with a family life. Moreover, if we stop associating particular features that are typically associated with men with what is needed to hold top positions, women are given the opportunity to break through the glass ceiling. However, in order to do so women should also carefully inspect their own attitudes regarding their capabilities. If women are more at ease with having a man in charge, the women’s emancipation process still has a long way to go. 



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