Barriers to Work for Parents in Chicago Theatre – Survey Results

In the fall of 2016, Parents in Chicago Theatre surveyed a sampling of parents in a wide variety of theatre jobs – actors, directors, designers, educators and administrators – to determine the effect that having caring responsibilities has on careers. Below is the first report of our findings, an overview that includes some of the challenges artists face and the resources that are currently available, as well as ideas for how working conditions could be improved. 

91% of parents have turned down theatre work because of scheduling or the cost of childcare.

Anyone who works in theatre knows that it’s not easy. The hours are long, often late in the evenings, and unpredictable. It seems like there is never enough pay, if you’re getting paid at all. Getting a paycheck to do what you love feels like a privilege, a bonus. So you work a day job and rehearse in the evenings, find flexible work that gives you time off for auditions, take that internship or apprenticeship and eat ramen for six months to make rent. We’ve all been there. It’s part of the charm and tradition of the theatre: hard graft, long hours, and lots of collaboration and inspiration.

But what happens when there is another mouth to feed? The desire to raise children doesn’t discriminate against artists. At some point your time is no longer free, and no longer your own. When you have a child to care for, every hour you or another co-parent isn’t with that child, someone has to be. Every hour you work, you have to pay someone else to take care of your child. If your agent calls with a last-minute audition, what do you do? If rehearsal runs late and your babysitter can’t stay, who do you call? The day care charges for every 15 minutes you’re late picking up. You may not want to work 40 hours a week at a day job, plus spend another 20 in rehearsal, performing every weekend. Usually when people have children, they want to spend at least some time with those small new people they went to so much trouble to acquire. All parents know the pull to be home for bedtime is strong. Sweet-smelling freshly bathed children in cute pajamas snuggling up for a story? How can any professional storyteller resist?

The answer is we make it work. Or we don’t. We involve children in the process, we work split schedules with spouses to cut down on childcare costs, we rely on free childcare from family members, or work out reciprocal arrangements with other parents. I personally have done all of these things at one point in the last six years to make it work. But also, sometimes we don’t. Theatre artists, especially women, are in danger of falling off their career track when they have children. And we make it work or don’t. Very few theatre organizations have policies in place to help the parents who work for them, so it’s up to the individual.

Last year I set up a Facebook group of parents who work in Chicago theatre. I wanted to find other theatre artists who could share experiences, strategies, maybe even childcare. I found that parents are hungry for this type of connection. Parenthood is isolating in any context, but working in an industry where parents are a minority can be even more so. It can feel like you’re the only one trying to maintain a career – much less advance one – while caring for a tiny person or two.

In May, 2016 we held a panel discussion on the topic at the City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Lake FX conference. The crowd was small, but the discussion was inspiring. Out of that discussion, I circulated a survey to theatre parents in Chicago and have spent some time looking at what they had to say.

Survey Results

The Parents in Chicago Theatre (PICT) survey asked a cross-section of theatre workers who are also parents – mothers and fathers – whether being a parent was a barrier to getting work in the first place. Nearly all (91%) said that they had turned down work because either the schedule was incompatible with being a parent or because of the prohibitive cost of childcare.

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Many jobs in the theatre require working long days and evening hours, and the pay is notoriously low, if there is any pay at all. This means that a job as a stage manager, for example, that doesn’t pay enough to cover the cost of a babysitter in the evenings (there is no day care in the evening), is going to someone potentially less qualified who doesn’t have caring responsibilities. The stage manager parent is then in danger of falling back in his or her career, it becomes more and more difficult to get the job that pays enough, and the less experienced stage manager without caring responsibilities moves ahead.

This is an issue that affects fathers as well as mothers, but it affects women disproportionately. It has been ingrained in the theatre culture that mothers are a liability. When I was applying for jobs after my oldest son was born, a well-meaning friend who is an actress with grown children advised me not to tell potential employers that I had a baby. She even went so far as to suggest I not put him in my profile picture on social media. In the survey, nearly half of women said they felt like they didn’t get a job because they were mothers, and 38% had hidden the fact that they were pregnant in a job interview.

Income

Chicago is not unique in that income from theatre tends to be low. 53% of people surveyed earned less than $20,000/year from their work in theatre. However, after becoming a parent, incomes stagnate at best. 70% said their income had gone down or remained the same since becoming a parent. 40% said their income had in fact gone down.

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Arguably more important than income is career trajectory. Taking a break from theatre to have a baby can interrupt any momentum that your career may have. About 20% of respondents said their career trajectory had not changed since becoming parents, but about the same percentage said that they had taken or were currently taking a break. A larger percentage (26%) said that they were still working in theatre, but worked less. These people all responded to a survey about working in theatre and parenting, so it doesn’t reflect people who have completely left the theatre workforce after having children.

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Challenges

Only 36% of respondents reported working only daytime hours. This is no surprise to anyone who works in theatre, but this aspect of the industry does present some challenges that are unique to parents, especially parents of young children. When asked an open question about the challenges they face, the most common answers had to do with scheduling and pay. These include working evenings and weekends, schedules that change unexpectedly and maintaining a work/life balance with a demanding and time-intensive theatre job. Many respondents cited low pay as a challenge, with fees for theatre work sometimes being less than the cost of childcare.

Hand in hand with scheduling and pay challenges is childcare. A full-time day care spot for an infant in Chicago costs on average of about $1000/month and require a long-term commitment. There are a few childcare facilities that provide drop-in service, but those are more expensive per hour, and it can be difficult to leave your child in a new environment. Theatre artists can get creative about childcare. Many reported sharing caregiving duties with a partner, which often means working at different times and sacrificing family time. More than half said that they had brought their children to work with them, but for most people that’s only an occasional solution, not a full-time arrangement. Most theatres don’t actively encourage bringing babies into the rehearsal room, but it can be done (I’ve done it myself). Theatre artists tend to have long lists of babysitters, who are often younger actors, and many trade off looking after each other’s children.

For most of the survey, responses from men and women were similar. When asked about challenges, however, more men reported their biggest challenge as work/life balance and time spent away from their families. For women, this came third to schedule/pay and childcare. There could be several reasons for this disparity. It may be that women fall into the role of coordinating childcare, or their theatre career takes a backseat to a partner’s career and therefore must be juggled with childcare. It could also be that fathers working in theatre face fewer challenges related to low pay and schedules, or that they have partners who are the primary caregivers.

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Resources

When asked what resources had been the most useful for them, most people said some sort of network. This may be their family and friends, or finding other theatre parents to share experiences with. A much smaller number of people said that their employer or union had been a valuable resource to them. In fact, more people said that they had no resources than that they had had help from an employer. One respondent said they just wanted empathy and understanding from their employer. Empathy is something we are supposed to be good at in the theatre. If we can’t even provide empathy to new parents, how can we hope to hold on to the wealth of knowledge and experience that they have to contribute?

When asked what the biggest resource is that would help them continue theatre work, 75% said childcare would be the most helpful. There are a lot of forms that can take. I’ve heard parents imagining childcare in many forms. Some have suggested a bump in pay to cover childcare or writing it into a grant proposal. Larger institutions that are headquartered in a centralised area could pool together to provide a daycare facility that could be available to their employees and guest artists during short-term contracts or at unsociable hours. Something as simple as a public database of trusted babysitters that can be shared among artists, which is already in the works, is immensely useful.

Inclusion/Conclusion

Inclusion is a major topic of discussion in the theatre right now, – and rightfully so. I propose that parents should be included in inclusion policies that theatres already have in place or are crafting. It is common knowledge that women are underrepresented in the top jobs at theatres nationwide. Motherhood is among the reasons for this. Taking time away from the theatre when caring for young children, having to turn down work that may advance a career but doesn’t pay for childcare, and a lack of support from the industry all contribute to keeping women from advancing to the top of their field.

Men and women reported experiencing fairly equal effects on income and career and had similar childcare concerns, but men did not report perceived discrimination because of their family status. Nearly half of women, however, say that they feel like they didn’t get a job because they are parents. This is one area where women have it much harder than men. It is a statistic that cannot be ignored no longer.

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In the coming months I plan to speak with theatre artists and organizations about finding ways to make the theatre industry a more inclusive environment for parents. If you would like to be interviewed, or have resources to share, please get in touch!

View the full infographic here! Infographics designed using Venngage.

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