Motherhood Bias Affects All of Us + 3 Ways to Fight It

"Statera Voices" is an op-ed series featured on the Statera Blog dedicated to reclaiming dominant cultural narratives as a means towards intersectional gender balance in the arts and beyond. "Statera Voices" is where we tell our stories, expand our histories, and celebrate each other.

Today's offering comes to us from Rachel Spencer Hewitt, founder of Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) for the Performing Arts, a collective of individuals and theatre organizations committed to family-friendly practices in the theatre. Rachel will join her colleague, Adriana Gaviria, to present a breakout session at Statera’s upcoming National Conference called "Motherhood and Leadership: Initiatives for Upward Mobility".


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Motherhood Bias Affects All of Us + 3 Ways to Fight It

BY RACHEL SPENCER HEWITT


Imagine a world where your needs weren’t an obstacle to production but an opportunity to improve the system. A culture of “yes” that made space for new solutions and functionality. A system of diverse individuals who thrive on interconnected responsibility and quality of productivity instead of isolated responsibility and quantity of hours.

When presented as theory, these ideals seem progressive, appealing, and for many - life changing. We can unite behind these ideals. When presented in reality, the fears of misidentification and limited resources divide us. We forget we’re asking for the same things in different forms.

We cannot forget.

As more essays and initiatives and dialogue break the silence on motherhood, I’ve been challenged as an advocate for mothers, even directly, that the “motherhood” conversation could be taking space from women who choose not to have children. Their voices begin to feel unheard.

I believe them.

Here’s why - a truth anyone reading this piece will likely already understand is that the space given to women is already too small and therefore easily over-occupied. It is this fear that threatens to divide us: we don’t want to lose what little space we have left. 

This obstacle illustrates the misunderstanding of why we fight for the “motherhood-in-theatre cause”. Like our term “feminism,” language itself threatens to limit the discussion and reduce the purpose. We cannot allow it. In the motherhood fight, like the fight for feminism, motherhood is the banner presented by a specific demographic fighting for ideals that benefit everyone. To see how, let’s first explore how the motherhood bias adversely affects everyone, especially non-caregivers and then identify ways to combat these adverse effects:

 

1.     Misogyny Feeds on the Domestication of Women
Whether a mother or not, current social constructs maintain that women belong in secondary positions, at best, positions of contained leadership, while a man belongs in the lead. On the path to professional leadership, the infamous “glass ceiling” illustrates that this social construct directly informs our professional structure. As a result, when a woman’s position remains secondary professionally, so do the woman’s needs. In the professional world, women are expected to lead in secondary positions because our society pushes the expectation further, expecting women to become mothers and classifies mothers as the secondary, domesticated role. We perpetuate this archaic hierarchy by viewing theatre professionals who are mothers as domesticated beings. The mother, then, seeking professional status, becomes an easy casualty of misogyny because the needs of domesticated beings are professionally irrelevant, and, therefore, the structures have no obligation to change accordingly.

Excluding the needs of mothers from the conversation about women’s needs in the workplace by labeling it a domestic issue diminishes the number of women calling for structural overhaul of the workplace. The number of women whose needs are then determined as professionally irrelevant directly impacts gender equity, promotion, and representation.

How we fight it: Consider the needs of mothers as professionally relevant and necessary in the fight for gender equity, promotion, and representation.

How this helps everyone: By considering a mother’s needs as professionally relevant, gender-specific calls for social and professional structural overhaul increase in number, representation, and diversity of impact.

2.     The Motherhood Expectation of “Divided Commitment” Inhibits All Women

If you are not a caregiver, have you ever been asked the question in any form, “Will you have kids?” “Don’t you want kids?” “Don’t you think you’ll regret not having kids?” or even had that expectation casually or silently present in an interview or professional environment? More common than not, these inappropriate and invasive questions and expectations still permeate our work culture and feel reductive, dismissive, and ominous in terms of professional promotion. They expect you to eventually divide your commitment.

 Art by Sarah Greenman.

Art by Sarah Greenman.

Professional culture still allows us to equate motherhood with divided commitment, therefore allowing us to project a divided commitment on all women because of their potential motherhood whether they become mothers or not. This expectation wouldn’t exist if motherhood itself weren’t seen as an inherently divided commitment in the first place. No one has the right to investigate your motherhood plans and motherhood should be allowed in conversations of accessibility without the discriminating expectation that the woman in question will eventually lack professional capability. The personal reality of motherhood does not prescriptively affect professional commitment. Expectations of divided commitment, however, can inhibit it, so we must eradicate the expectation.

How we fight it: Advocate for mothers to be seen as professional individuals capable of  complete agency and leaders of their own level of personal commitment and professional goals.

How this helps everyone: If the reality of motherhood is not allowed to discriminate against a woman’s personal commitment and professional capability, then the expectation of motherhood no longer has the power to discriminate against all women in these ways as well.

3.     Work-Life Balance Viewed as the Pursuit of Working Better - Not Less - Impacts Everyone
The bias against professionals seeking work-life balance claims that they simply can’t meet the standard or want to work less. While some professionals desire and have the right to directly reduce their hours, not all professionals - mothers included - seek the reduction of work when they ask for adjustment of work. Thanks to developments of technology, progress in studies of efficacy, and emphasis on quality over quantity of hours, work-life balance has emerged as a primary topic for workplace restructuring. In many fields, including the theatre, mothers refrain from asking for creative solutions that may make work more efficient and accessible out of fear. This fear is echoed by many groups seeking change necessary for inclusion. From creating access for differently abled employees to decreasing race discrimination in employee evaluations to accommodating motherhood, finding new and improved methods of work can improve access and productivity for everyone by designing a system that fits the people working within it.

The mother’s needs contribute positively to this discussion in that they often include adjusting to different levels of physical mobility, considering the impact of an institution on outside individuals, and flexibility of function and execution to better fit the individual fulfilling the role. Even simple work-culture recommendations that positively affect everyone, as well as mothers, include telecommuting options, early schedule release for productions and projects, and including brunch and daytime in-hours networking events (instead of exclusively evening).

How to fight bias: Support motherhood accommodations according to legal rights as well as individual needs of mothers working in the institution.

How this helps everyone: The systems of the institution are then built in consideration of access needs as opposed to being maintained in conflict with access needs. Access and accommodation must become inherent principles when creating work-related systems for everyone.

 

For theatre to sustain its social impact, relevancy, and progress, we must consider how we view, include, and promote mothers. Motherhood is a valid lifestyle with professional impact and is deserving of professional rights, dignity, and accommodation. When we fight for motherhood, we fight for the unification of all professionals with access needs. Prioritizing access affects everyone and increases our power to influence equity, diversity, and efficacy.


 Rachel Spencer Hewitt

Rachel Spencer Hewitt

ABOUT RACHEL

Rachel Spencer Hewitt is the founder of Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL) for the Performing Arts, a collective of individuals and theatre organizations committed to family-friendly practices in the theatre. PAAL's mission is to empower and advocate for the parent-artist, both employee and freelance, in collaboration with theatre organizations in order to raise awareness of parent artist obstacles in the theatre and create work-life balance interventions, healthy work culture, stable protocols, and accessible pathways to employment.

Rachel received her BA in Drama from Trinity University and MFA in Acting from the Yale School of Drama. She earned her equity card understudying and performing at the Yale Repertory Theater. Her professional acting resume includes Broadway Debut in tony-nominated King Charles III at The Music Box theater, regional theater and off-Broadway productions, including the Paula Vogel/Tina Landau New York premiere of A Civil War Christmas. She recently moved to Chicago and has founded a national online community and resource initiative to highlight, identify, and create dialogue on motherhood in the theater arts on her blog AuditioningMom.com.