A #MeToo commissioner struggling with Dutch equality

The narrow hallway leading to Mariette Hamer’s office in The Hague doubles as a gallery of cartoons depicting her in various incarnations throughout her political career.

Here she is as a giant conductor, directing a tiny, dancing Prime Minister Mark Rutte – a reference to when she brokered the formation of the last coalition government. In another, a giant third eye protrudes from his forehead. But Hamer’s most recent work is hardly humorous. This month she became the Netherlands’ first-ever #MeToo commissioner, one of the few officials in the world appointed specifically to tackle inappropriate behavior and sexual violence.

The Netherlands, famous for its liberal attitudes on social issues such as same-sex relationships or drug use, may seem at first glance a somewhat counterintuitive place for this work. But recently, Dutch society and politics as a whole have faced a moment of reckoning.

Earlier this year, the popular TV show The Voice of Holland was taken off the air after an investigative report revealed allegations of sexual misconduct. In February, it emerged that the director of football affairs at the country’s main football club, Ajax Amsterdam, had sent unsolicited sexual texts and photos to female employees. And just last week, one of the political parties was criticized for ignoring the results of an investigation into the improper behavior of one of its prominent members.

“The Netherlands seems liberal,” Hamer said in a recent interview, “but if you look at the position of women in society, we are a very old-fashioned country.” Speaking with her 23-year-old daughter, Hamer discovered that she, too, often received such unsolicited photos. “I asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ And she said, “Oh, I thought you knew, it’s something that happens to all of us.”

It was this experience, along with public scandals, that motivated her to serve as government commissioner for combating sexual violence and inappropriate behavior, a role still unique in Europe. She hopes it will prove transformative for Dutch society.

The broad mandate includes addressing inappropriate behavior and sexual abuse. “The government itself will have to draw up an action plan, I will advise on this and also ensure that it is implemented. It’s about how we can organize ourselves better. For example, are there enough confidential counselors in the workplace? Hamer said. The government is also likely to consider whether the structures in place to manage victim support can be improved and examine how gender equality is handled in the education system.

But Hamer also wants to trigger a social debate on gender equality. “We do very poorly when it comes to women at the top of companies,” she says. Last year Equileap, a global equality watchdog, found that “there are more Dutch CEOs named Peter (5) than female CEOs (3)”.

Some progress was made late last year, when parliament passed a law requiring listed companies to appoint women to at least one-third of board seats. In politics too, where women leaders have long been in the minority, the current cabinet is the first to respect gender parity (out of 29 ministers, 14 are women).

Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2001, Dutch society has retained fairly conservative views on childcare and the role of women in the household. “We have a very strong motherhood culture, which means a lot of women work part-time. It doesn’t surprise me that we have a very male-dominated culture,” Hamer says.

According to official data, the income of Dutch women in 2020 was on average more than 35% lower than that of men. This is partly because three-quarters of women work part-time, a higher proportion than anywhere else in the EU, reports Statistics Netherlands.

What will be the measure of success when Hamer looks back at the end of her term on what she has accomplished? “I hope that in these three years we will have a strong debate and that the change of culture will be in motion. This is the first step. And then perhaps in a different form, a younger woman to pick up the slack and keep the focus on this important theme.

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