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Calling for change through stop-motion: Let’s Drop the Motherhood Penalty

What’s the worst thing you could do at work? Get caught out on Zoom in your PJs? Spend all day on Whatsapp Web? Send the email bitching about your boss, to your boss? Unsurprisingly, whilst tempting at times, making these moves in the office is unlikely to get you promoted. In fact, it would probably hinder your chances of progressing very far. Yet when it comes to acts of anarchy in the workplace, a recent animation by Swedish director Anna Mantzaris presents a vision of chaos we can only daydream about on boring Mondays. In the short stop-motion film, a misbehaving protagonist unapologetically causes havoc among her co-workers. And to make it all the more entertaining, she seems indifferent to the consequences.

But behind the film’s loveable woolly characters lies an alarming message. Produced for New Zealand charity Global Women, it holds a spotlight on the so-called ‘Motherhood Penalty’, concluding that however ‘career-limiting’ these acts of sabotage might be, almost none of them are as detrimental to a woman’s career as having a baby.

What is the Motherhood Penalty? 

‘The Motherhood Penalty’ is a term to describe the systematic workplace disadvantages experienced by women when they have children. Having a baby can have a considerable long-lasting impact on a woman’s career: it can affect her salary, pension, her progression prospects and even perceived professional competence. The Penalty is grounded in unconscious bias and sexual discrimination towards women in the workplace, contributing heavily to wider issues like the gender pay gap. It’s a very real, far-reaching issue - and the UK has big steps to take to tackle it.

How does it affect women? 

Having a child translates into a financial blow for families: but women take the greatest hit. The time taken off to have a child naturally accrues a fall in earnings, but the impact doesn’t stop there. In fact, Global Women states that having a baby can set back a woman’s earnings by 12.5% for her entire career.

For example, 3 in 10 mothers make changes to their employment after having children, such as reducing working hours or taking roles with less responsibility. More specifically, fewer than 20% of all new mothers follow a full-time career after their maternity leave. This comes as no surprise, with data consistently proving that women in heterosexual relationships spend much more time on childcare than men. This has been only exacerbated by the Pandemic: last year, in households with a child under 5, women did a staggering 78% more childcaree than men whilst working from home.

Prescriptive gender stereotyping is largely to blame here, with unconscious bias distorting perceptions of working mothers and their capabilities compared to their male or child-free counterparts. At its worst, this stereotyping sees employers hesitant about hiring women of child-bearing age, or women being scrutinised for even trying to continue their careers after giving birth. (We’ve all seen Keira Knightley’s response to being asked how she can juggle her career and her children.) And these worrying barriers against women are happening right now: only last month was the law changed to allow Attorney General Suella Braverman to take maternity leave after giving birth. Before this, cabinet ministers were required to resign.

The fact That these social constructs are so normalised in today’s world seems almost ludicrous - we might question how the statistics surrounding women’s career trajectories post-children even still exist at all. As Mantzaris herself puts it, ‘I don’t believe this is something happening intentionally, but rather a consequence of our culture and failing to see obstacles and discriminations that mothers are constantly facing’. In her film, Mantzaris’ distinct creative style illuminates the issue from a fresh, satirical perspective. Its tumbleweed moments and awkward silences hit home much harder than just seeing stats on a screen. What’s more, the Swedish animator’s film often explores humans’ deepest, most devilish desires, like her award-winning film Enough, which presents a world full of impulses and imperfect behaviour. With Mantzaris as director, Global Women have delivered their campaign with a signature tongue-in-cheek style - and it’s all the more memorable for it.

So, what can be done about it?

Globally, countries have a long way to go in dropping the Motherhood Penalty completely. In the UK, finding ways to bridge the gender gap is fundamental (in 2020 among all employees, men still earned 15.5% more than women). Encouraging shared parental leave for employees can help re-shift the gendered expectations, whilst increasing the options of flexible working can help keep mothers in the leadership pipeline. Through broader, more inclusive professional pathways, women can progress into (and stay in) the senior roles which they should not have to compromise for the sake of motherhood.

Check out Anna Mantzaris’ work , and the Global Women campaign, which launched across digital and social platforms for #IWD last month.

Images: Anna Mantzaris, Passion Animation Studios and Saatchi & Saatchi: Career Limiting Move (Copyright © Global Women, 2021)


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