Ingrid van Engelshoven
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It was around Christmas 1998. My husband and I had driven to Belgium to see my parents for lunch. We were sitting at a table in a dining room, and in the best Belgium tradition there were fresh pastries and rolls. But I couldn't eat a bite. I was so nervous. My husband and I had news. We were there to share something that would turn our lives upside down. I was pregnant. I was there to tell my parents. Look, this was me at that time. We sat there at the table with the pastries and the rolls, and I told them. And then it got very quiet. My dad stood up and said, 'I'm going outside for a bit.' (Laughter) And he left. My mother's first reaction was 'How will you manage?' She didn't ask my husband that question. She didn't ask, 'How will the two of you manage?' No, she only asked me. 'How will you manage?' At the time, I had a demanding job, I was working full-time, and she knew I had no plans to change that. I was ambitious, and I wanted to continue with my career. My parents had taught me that too. They raised my sisters and me with the idea that it was very important that we go to university, and that we would find our own way in life, that we would not be dependent on others, until we met that perfect someone. Then, of course, we would get married, and then things suddenly looked very different. Mixing a career with raising children - no. If you work full-time, you can't possibly raise a child too. If you have a baby, you can work two days a week, maybe three, tops. My parents wanted the best for me, no doubt about that. They wanted what was best for me and for my baby. But they just couldn't imagine having a career and raising a child at the same time. Think about it. My dad was always working, my mum was always at home. When I was a child, when I came home from school, she was always there, waiting for me with a cup of tea and a cookie. That was wonderful, of course. But it also shaped the idea of what was normal. You all might be thinking that was back then, it must have been a long time ago. But I had that Christmas lunch with my parents in 1998, and that was not so long ago. This is now. And it's true, a lot has changed since then. Two-thirds of women are now active on the labour market. Men get time off work to take care of their newborns. Women are spending more time outside the house working. But even more has not changed. The media and advertising industry keep showing us the classic image of the husband as the breadwinner and the wife as the homemaker. If an expert is called on to give an opinion on radio or television, chances are it will be a man. This is actually the case 88% of the time. Women are only called on 12% of the remaining cases. One in four men depicted in newspaper photos are shown in a work situation. Only one in fourteen women are. You might expect adult television watchers and newspaper readers to be somewhat resistant to this kind of stereotyping. But children are sensitive to it. That's a serious issue. Take advertising aimed at children, like this from a holiday toy catalogue. Not one from 1998 but from 2018. This is what our children are seeing today, typical role models, and the catalogues are full of them. In the images our kids see every day, girls still play with dolls and boys do experiments. Girls are caring and boys are adventurous. Girls spend time in the kitchen while the boys take on tough jobs. This has a lasting effect on how children view the division of labour between men and women. Once an image like that gets embedded in a young mind, it becomes almost impossible to change it when a child grows up. Let's talk about free will. As you probably know, I'm a politician. I'm a member of D66, a social-liberal party. I believe in liberty. I believe in the power of free will. I believe individuals are responsible for their own choices. So why am I so bothered with these kinds of gender stereotypes? ‘Leave the kids alone’ - you might think. 'Let them develop in their own way. They can make their own choices when they grow up.' If women want to take time to look after their children, who am I to criticise that? If women don't want to work 60 hours a week, why should we expect them to break through the glass ceiling? Ultimately, women must decide for themselves how they want to live their lives. A social liberal like me should not want to interfere with how people live their lives. This is indeed what you all would think, and this would be the case if there really was free choice, based on complete information and full transparency. But that, however, is not the case. Gender stereotyping has a profound influence on people's lives. Quietly and without even being aware of it, it chokes off free will. Unconsciously and unintentionally, it shapes our behaviour. It seeps through in newspaper photos and advertisements. After a while, we really start to believe that only men can be experts and that all women like to be in the kitchen, like to clean while their husbands pursue their careers. And then you can tell yourself that it's free choice to spend three afternoons a week driving your kids to tennis lessons. But after a while, it doesn't seem so free anymore - when you find yourself stuck in a small part-time job, when you find you are no longer developing personally and professionally, or if you find that you want to leave your husband, but you don't dare to because you're dependent on his income. What once started as an apparently free choice turns out to be a dead end. So, guess what? I didn't quit my job. My daughter went to childcare, both during and after school, despite my parents' warnings. They still weren't comfortable with the situation. A demanding job and caring for a child - something had to give. 'You're going to be so busy, you will forget to pick up your daughter at daycare' - they warned me. They kept asking her, 'Do you like it at daycare?' (Laughter) 'Really?' (Laughter) When she said, 'Yes', they asked her, 'Are you sure?' (Laughter) My daughter is now 19, and she's getting ready for university, and she doesn't seem to have suffered very much. (Laughter) And okay, okay - I did forget to pick her up once. (Laughter) (Applause) I still see her standing there all alone, her coat already on, soaking, in front of the daycare, and it made me feel so awful. But it happened just once in all those years. (Laughter) On the other hand, she had a mother who felt good about herself, because she could develop herself, because she could work, because she could set a good example, and because she could make her own conscious choices. So, I speak from experience when I call upon you to claim that same right - the right to a conscious free choice, free from prejudice about how things should be just because everybody else does things in a certain way. Free from the stereotypical images that continue to confront us from the husband as the breadwinner and the wife as the homemaker, of the boy in blue and the girl in pink. I wanted free choice for my daughter, and I'm sure everybody else here in the room wants the same for their children. It's up to us to give it to them. So, the next time you are presented with a decision, please ask yourself: Is it based on free choice? Or is it based on stereotyping, on what your parents told you, or on what the newspapers and advertisements made you believe? If you have children, try to avoid the same trap. Try not to see them only as a boy or a girl, but see them and treat them as individuals with their own personalities and characteristics, so that they too can really have a free choice. Thank you so much.