Female Forward Int.
Women's Involvement in Dutch Politics: An Uphill Climb

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It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent.

Gerdien Knikker

It is a motto that I keep telling myself when I am stuck and in need of some wisdom, as a local female politician. Inspired by the great work of trailblazer Madeleine Albright, her quote is a perfect reminder for us women to stand up and demand a seat at the table where decisions are being made.

Let’s start with some facts

The good news is that we are slowly, but steadily improving the female representation in politics in the Netherlands. The results of the local elections in March 2022 show an increase of the number of women in local city councils from 31 to 36 percent. In addition, in the largest 70 municipalities the percentage of women is even higher. And over 400 women won their seats with a preferential vote: a direct result of smart campaign strategies to elect more women across the country. As strange as it sounds, before the elections of this year there was still a municipality in the Netherlands without any female representation at all.

But let’s also dare to look critically at the composition of executive boards in the municipalities in our country. You will see that we need to remind ourselves that there is still a lot of work to be done to improve female representation in the coming years.

Three months after the local elections, we see that the 75 percent of executive board members is composed of men. The Dutch Wethoudersvereniging (Alderpersons Society) looked into the numbers and found that only 26 percent of alderpersons are female. And, shocker, around 30 percent of the 344 municipalities in the Netherlands have executive boards run solely and exclusively by men!

Different barriers for women

Liza Mügge, associate professor at the Political Science Department of the University of Amsterdam, concludes that the small percentage of women in executive boards in municipalities is not because there are simply not enough qualified women. In her research she identifies two different barriers. One, people who are responsible for finding suitable alderpersons are usually white middle aged men who are looking for candidates that look like themselves. And two, aggression and hate/threats against women in politics, especially against women of color, are keeping women out of the race.

Add up the fact that women are still taking on more caring responsibilities at home for their families and loved ones, and you see that it becomes a real challenge to change this dynamic. However, as Mügge suggests: “Politics is personal for everyone and everyone has a blind spot. That’s why it is so important to have a representation of different genders, educational backgrounds, religions, ethnicities and experiences. It leads to more discussions in the policy making process and thus better politics.”

Let’s be honest and inspire each other

So the question is - what can we do to improve female representation in politics? I think we need to go all in. First, we need inspiring role models who lead the way and make room for other women to join them at the table. Second, we have to be honest with ourselves as well: it is hard sometimes as a woman to juggle all the different responsibilities that come along with being a woman in politics. You can have it all, just not all at the same time.

Yes, it can be intimating when you enter a room full of men who look and act as if they are the only ones who belong there. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to speak up as well. Find other women, support each other and join the conversation to support the ideas that are being put forward by other women.

And yes, sometimes the imposter syndrome makes you doubt yourself and question everything that you are trying to achieve. I think we all have that sometimes, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If anything, it makes me even more determined to keep going and look at the results of my work. Learn to make mistakes and strive to do better next time.

As a woman you are sometimes underestimated. You have to work harder to prove yourself, but know that knowledge is power. Especially in politics. I believe women are more inclined to focus on the substance of policies and improve the policy making process thanks to that.

History has its eyes on us

So, are we improving female representation in the Netherlands? I think we are.

And the elections in the coming years will give us an opportunity to show that we really did all we could to include more women, and women with different backgrounds, in our politics to improve female representation. We have our eyes set on the future, but bear also in mind that history has its eyes on us. And it’s up to all of us to do everything that we can!

I will leave you with some food for thought by feminist Betty Friedan who wrote in the Feminist Mystique in 1963: “It would be a great service to tell girls who plan to work in society to expect this subtle, uncomfortable discrimination--tell them not to be quiet, and hope it will go away, but fight it.” In 2022 that should still be our message to all the girls and women across our borders who plan to go into politics one day.

Gerdien Knikker (1984) is a local politician and party leader for D66 in Haarlemmermeer. As a former board member of the Els Borst Network she strives to inspire women to step into politics by sharing inspirational stories and best practices. With a background in American Studies she writes from time to time about American politics and female leadership.