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Toppling the Motherhood Penalty - Parental Inclusion Can Benefit Everyone

Posted By Michelle Budnick, Wednesday, September 4, 2019

When you consider the women on your production team, how many of them are open about whether they have children? How early in the hiring process did they disclose this information, and would they have been hired regardless of their family status? These are questions that production moms often ask themselves when they contemplate a career change or interview for a new positionwhich for a freelancer can be frequently.

Mothers working in production know that being open about their family can change the way they are perceived and have a significant impact on their career progression. It’s a phenomenon commonly known as the “motherhood penalty.”

A Harvard University study into the phenomenon concluded the motherhood penalty “may account for a significant proportion of the gender gap in pay.” It also noted, “Mothers face penalties in hiring, starting salaries and perceived competence, while fathers can benefit from being a parent.” In some cases that translates to a father who is a parent being seen as more stable and ambitious, leading to a greater chance of getting a raise or promotion.

Working mothers are often viewed as less productive, more distracted, less stable and less achievement-oriented than their male counterparts. Studies have shown that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired than men or child-free women and offered less money for their work. The pay gap grows larger with each additional child and does not begin to shrink until children are around 10 years old. These penalties can be compounded in the production industry, where the emphasis is on complete availability to work long and often irregular hours. That means fewer opportunities if you’re unable to meet those requirementsor you may face exorbitant childcare costs. 

The presumption that mothers are unable to perform as well as their male and child-free colleagues is based on outdated stereotypes that working mothers won’t prioritize work or will be unavailable when needed. In order to change things, we have to normalize, not stigmatize, production moms. Employers also need to recognize the many skills a working mother develops that are valuable for the production world, such as emotional intelligence, organization, negotiation and time management.

With ages 25 to 35 being career development years and the time when women are most likely to have children, females in production are forced to factor in more variables than their male counterparts when deciding whether to start a family.  

In order to have true equality, women must be able to pursue their careers at the same time they’re having children, instead of being asked to choose which is more important. Progress has been slow, and we are losing a vital voice and a great deal of creative talent in the process.

But there are signs things are moving in a different direction. Galvanized by the Time’s Up movement in Hollywood and a larger shift toward addressing societal inequities, employers are starting to recognize the urgent need to redress the inequity and are seeing a positive impact from their efforts.

Building family-friendly policies around a healthy work-life balance is being recognized as an achievable goal for companies that value their teams. At many workplaces, policies like paid parental leave, job sharing, telecommuting and flexible work hours are seen not just as benefits but as necessities to retain a happy and productive workforce.

In Silicon Valley, a group called Parents in Tech Alliance has formed to create “positive and meaningful change for parents working in technology.” Companies such as Twitter, Lyft, LinkedIn and Salesforce are among the change makers.

When supervising producer Lindsay Liles took a job on The Bachelor, she found a flexibility she couldn’t have imagined when she had her daughter in 2018. “We’re a show about finding love, falling in love and having a family, so it was important for them to support a healthy home life,” Lindsay explains. In addition to meeting her breastfeeding needs, the showrunners allowed her to bring her daughter to meetings and to the set on the weekends she didn’t have childcare. They also moved her temporarily into casting when she was unable to travel with the show. This kind of treatment and respect encourages loyalty from employees who appreciate being accommodated. “Why would I ever want to leave when they have gone out of their way to support me?” says Lindsay.

Other production companies are following suit. Netflix is leading the way with a range of family- friendly policies that take into consideration both parent and baby. While employees are encouraged to have a healthy work-life balance and be present for their children, the company’s bottom line has not been impacted.

Moms-in-Film, a California-based nonprofit with support from Amazon Studios, Panavision and Collab&Play, is committed to raising awareness around inequities for parents in film and TV. They launched the Wee Wagon, a mobile childcare facility designed for use on film sets. The group has also advocated for California-based films to adopt a Parental Inclusive Clause into their contracts, which asks that productions commit to a 50% to 100% subsidy for the cost of childcare for all members of the cast and crew. They offer a handy list of 10 ways to be inclusive and recognize that childcare is the top issue among parents, with a survey noting that 77% of those working in the entertainment industry have had to turn down work due to a lack of childcare.

With a growing chorus of voices calling for equality, the power of visibly pregnant women on set, and high-level actresses advocating for childcare at work, the future looks brighter for mothers in production. In her book, Bossypants, Tina Fey relates that she was writing and producing 30 Rock from her home and bringing her child to the set, making her an outlier. It’s now becoming increasingly easier to envision a future where women in the industry don’t have to choose between their children and their creative ambitions as they work to achieve parity at the top levels of this competitive field.

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