The motherhood penalty
Radboud Researcher Ea Utoft and her former student Freja Lomaz Jørgensen state that while this trend appears empowering and feminist at the surface, it's not. Employers may use mothers’ absences due to maternity leave to justify not giving them promotions, salary increases, or job opportunities. This is known as the ‘motherhood penalty’. However, the studied women do not explicitly critique stereotypical beliefs about mothers being less committed or capable at work, leading to potential disadvantages.
The need to address systemic inequalities
What makes something feminist, then? Utoft clarifies: ‘The minimum is the recognition that many individual struggles are systemic issues of structural and cultural gender inequalities, like the motherhood penalty. There has to be a collective aspect, such as protest or other forms of mobilisation, to impact policy and societal views, which the women studied could do using LinkedIn, but they don’t. This LinkedIn trend instead is much more about personal branding.’
Be critical of neoliberal feminism
It's an example of why the effectiveness of so-called ‘neoliberal feminism’ can be questionable. 'By focusing on personal success and encouraging women to become entrepreneurs, neoliberal feminism puts all the responsibility on the individual to break gender norms. It means that women are told they need to change and be more confident, resilient, and qualified without acknowledging that systemic inequalities make these changes necessary in the first place', Utoft says. She continues, ‘Our article criticises how neoliberal feminism values personal relationships only in economic terms. For example, it suggests that caring for an infant is only valuable if it helps someone gain professional skills. We believe this perspective is problematic and deserves more research.’
How has parental leave previously worked in Denmark?
‘Parental leaves in Denmark are longer than in most other countries’, Utoft says. She explains, 'For about 25 years, the government based them on a 'flexible’ model. After the initial ten weeks of maternity leave, parents could freely divide an additional 32 weeks of parental leave between them. Politicians presented this as a progressive step. However, the implications were that women would take around 90% of that available leave for many years’.
Earmarking of parental leave
Utoft stresses that overcoming the motherhood penalty requires political action. She says: ‘Research shows that when men or co-parents have political rights to take up a share of parental leave, they also feel more culturally entitled to use it. This is also called the earmarking of parental leave and, over time, it can shift the cultural perceptions around care and parenting.’
During the Research, Denmark did actually implement the 'earmarking' of parental leave in 2022. After one year of implementation, a new policy analysis has shown that fathers are taking slightly more leave. She continues, 'This situation raises the question of how it will impact the LinkedIn practice. Will new mothers still have to prove their professional worth by listing the skills they gained from parental leave? Will men also start doing this? Or will the need to justify parental leave slowly disappear as more and more parents take it?
Towards more gender equality
As Denmark ventures a cultural shift with the 'earmarking' of parental leave, Utofts' Research on motherhood on social media encourages reflection on the broader implications of societal expectations on new mothers. It emphasises the collective effort needed for systemic change, the reshaping of workplace dynamics, and the continuing challenge of traditional gender roles, fostering a more equitable future for everyone.
The article by Jørgensen and Utoft is published in NORA – The Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research.