The narrow hallway leading to Mariette Hamer’s office in The Hague doubles as a cartoon gallery depicting her in various incarnations throughout her political career.
Here she is as a giant conductor, directing a small, dancing Prime Minister Mark Rutte — a reference to the time when she negotiated the formation of the latest coalition government. In another, a giant third eye peeks out of her forehead. But Hamer’s most recent job is hardly humorous. This month she became the Netherlands’ first-ever #MeToo commissioner, one of a few officials in the world appointed specifically to combat inappropriate behaviour and sexual violence.
The Netherlands, famous for its liberal attitudes on social issues such as same-sex relationships or drugs consumption, may initially seem a somewhat counterintuitive place for this job. But recently Dutch society, and politics as a whole, has been facing a moment of reckoning.
At the start of the year, the popular television 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 then director of football affairs at the country’s leading football club Ajax Amsterdam had been sending unsolicited sexual texts and pictures to female employees. And just last week, one of the political parties came under fire for disregarding the results of an inquiry into inappropriate behaviour by one of its prominent members.
“The Netherlands seem 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.” When talking to her 23-year-old daughter, Hamer discovered that she, too, had often received such unsolicited pictures. “I asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about it?’ And she said, ‘Oh, I thought you did know, this is something that happens to us all’.”
It was this experience, along with the public scandals, that motivated her to take up the job as the government commissioner for combating sexual violence and inappropriate behaviour, a role that is still unique in Europe. She hopes that it will prove transformational for Dutch society.
The broad mandate includes tackling inappropriate behaviour and sexual abuse. “The government itself will have to work out an action plan, I will give advice on it and also make sure it’s implemented. It is about how we can better organise. For instance, are there enough confidential counsellors in the workplace?” says Hamer. The government is also likely to review whether the structures in place to deal with victims’ support can be improved as well as examine how gender equality is handled in the education system.
But Hamer also wants to spark a societal debate about gender equality. “We are doing very poorly when it comes to women on top in companies,” she says. Last year, Equileap, a global equality watchdog, found that “there are more Dutch CEOs named Peter (5) than women CEOs (3).”
Some progress was made late last year, when parliament adopted a law obliging listed companies to appoint women to at least a third of board seats. In politics, too, in which female leaders have long been a minority, the current cabinet is the first with gender parity (out of 29 ministers, 14 are women).
Despite legalising same-sex marriage in 2001, Dutch society has retained quite conservative views when it comes to child care and the role of the woman in the household. “We have a very strong motherhood culture, which means that a lot of women work part-time. It doesn’t surprise me that we have a very dominant male culture,” Hamer says.
According to official data, the income of Dutch women in 2020 was on average more than 35 per cent lower compared with men. This is in part because three quarters of the women work part-time, a larger share 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 in these three years to have a firm debate and get the culture change under way. That’s the first step. And then maybe in a different form, a younger woman to take the baton and keep attention on this important theme.”