POSTED 13 JANUARY, 2023
with thanks for contributions from Jo Finn, Jennifer Johnston and Kitty Whately
“Sit back my friends, it’s morning rant time.”
The seed for this piece was planted in the middle of the pandemic as I typed that flippant sentence into a social media post. I feel a pang when I look at my word choice now: rant. Not protest, not argument, not statement, but rant; the word nice ladies use to pre-apologize for speaking strongly, dodging bullets that have not yet been fired. During the day preceding my “rant,” I’d heard from three women, former students and current colleagues. Each had just faced down questions and comments about motherhood in their job interviews, including the following:
“What does your husband think about this potential move? Will he be supportive?”
“How are you planning to handle childcare?”
“Is your little one still nursing? SO challenging - and it’s important in this role to be very available to your students.”
Icing on the cake was that I knew two women who were hiding their pregnancies for fear of endangering future promises of work. They were just the latest two in a long line of people I’d known in the same position throughout my career. So I posted: in solidarity, in frustration, wondering how things like this could happen when we’ve come so far. And then the comment thread started heating up. Here’s just 3 of the more than 250 replies:
“My husband has never been asked these questions. Not once in his entire life.”
“When I am on the road I get asked about once a day or so by someone I encounter... “Who is watching your children?”
“These questions have been asked of me at almost every job search I’ve ever been in. Each time, I feel that I have to defend myself with “I have a great support system, my husband can work remotely and travels with me, I have on-call childcare, I promise the work is my first priority,” etc etc...meanwhile, my husband is always praised as sensitive, caring and responsible for making family a priority.”
We have a lot of work to do.
So what’s the law? There isn’t any mystery here: In both the United States and the UK, an employer cannot make any hiring decisions based on gender, marital status, or family status, amongst other characteristics. Context is important for these questions, so they are not always discriminatory, but an employer should be very careful of their language at interview stage.
There are many examples of questions that may show the employer intends to discriminate or which are simply inappropriate, if these questions are asked of women, including:
● Whether applicant is pregnant.
● Marital status of applicant or whether applicant plans to marry.
● Number and age of children or future child bearing plans.
● Child care arrangements.
● Employment status of spouse.
● Name of spouse.
Any employer who has completed their required HR training can tell you it is best practice during the interview stage to simply avoid asking any questions referencing gender, marital status, or kids, since it is so difficult to determine whether the information gleaned gets used in the decision making process.
So why aren’t we doing it right? Because these questions don’t get asked at interview or meeting. They get asked when you’re walking to lunch or over drinks. On the sly a bit when things are a little more “casual.“ This is when it is most dangerous because candidates are encouraged to try to "connect" with their potential future colleagues, to see if they feel like "a good fit" and "part of the family".
'If our potential employers are concerned about where we’ll spend our time, it’s probably because women’s time is much less available for non-domestic work in most households, very likely including those of each person on the hiring committee.'
“One big happy family.”
Most of us have heard at least some of our various workplaces, both theaters and academic institutions, described as families. To be honest, I’ve been attracted to those workplaces in no small part because of some familial aspects, like working for a common good, or prioritizing development and learning. And both the performing arts and academia have self images that transcend “just business” stereotypes. They emphasize their workplaces’ room for creativity and self-expression, in contrast to traditional office environments. It might also be accurate to describe our workplaces as familial, because it’s also true that family-life is lagging in the areas of equality and fairness. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey shows that women spend about two hours more each day than men on household tasks, a gap which also persists when women have jobs (for which they still make seventy-nine cents to a man’s dollar). A UK survey by SWAP’ra partners PiPA (Parentsand carers in Performing Arts) in 2021, found that one in four women were doing 90% or more of the childcare. The latest PiPA survey found that the self-employed women involved, over 85% of whom had caring responsibilities, including mothers, reported a pay penalty of £8,000, earning the least, at around £12,000, compared to around £20,000 for freelance men. If our potential employers are concerned about where we’ll spend our time, it’s probably because women’s time is much less available for non-domestic work in most households, very likely including those of each person on the hiring committee.
All of this is augmented by the continued lack of clear time boundaries in the artistic professions. Practicing and continued study are daily requirements. We also learn early on that competition is fierce, and so we’re both motivated and encouraged to show how far we’re willing to go to succeed. And in the US specifically, where the social safety net is not robust, individual career success is extremely important materially, not just personally. If mothers are seen on the daily to have less time to dedicate to their careers than fathers, can they ever catch up in the eyes of their potential colleagues? We have to look hard at what we expect from the lives of teachers and artists, at how much lack of societal support breeds competition and overwork, and at the ways in which we keep imagining women primarily as wives, married to either a head of household or to a job.
There’s no denying that it’s more work to have children than to be childless. However, there are other situations that can impact life just as much for extended periods of time, but which are not regularly included in interview questions. We should examine why motherhood makes that list while, for example, having a chronic illness, caring for a parent, or being dedicated to a cause or avocation does not.
'Each of us can also examine the conscious and unconscious narratives we carry about mothers and what they can and can’t do. It’s critical for each of us to examine the collective tendency to ask women candidates about family while failing to ask men.'
So how does the narrative change? Are there questions that we can help others understand that are better to ask? In the interview process, it’s important for candidates to have strategies to deal with inappropriate or inappropriate-leaning questions. But it shouldn’t be on the shoulders of the people with the most to lose to navigate these situations. Hiring committee members need to do a much better job of holding one another accountable to the laws of the land. Each of us can also examine the conscious and unconscious narratives we carry about mothers and what they can and can’t do. It’s critical for each of us to examine the collective tendency to ask women candidates about family while failing to ask men. We may well do so because we know women in general are shouldering the brunt of domestic labor, and so we imagine we are helping and offering support by probing about a woman candidate’s home life. But as long as we carry that narrative into the interview room, we’ll keep putting women on the defensive. We’ll keep on consciously and unconsciously holding different expectations of employees who are mothers. And we’ll keep reinforcing the idea that the problem lies with women who are trying to do too much rather than with material and mental barriers that continue to exclude them.
'we’ll keep reinforcing the idea that the problem lies with women who are trying to do too much rather than with material and mental barriers that continue to exclude them.'
What if we viewed parenthood first as an asset rather than a potential problem? Management of a household and care of a family teach skills that are absolutely transferable to workplaces. We might think that those with such experience have more to bring to a workplace, not less. What if we took a deliberate turn away from the “having it all” narrative that is so aggressively marketed to women, which sets up a world view in which “it all” is in question and “having” it comes down to individual time management and strength? Government and industry policies have significant impacts on individual possibilities. It’s not easy for society to grasp how deeply we are impacted by the myth of the self-made man, but it’s vital that we look at how much that cultural narrative keeps us from making systems that offer greater equity at home and at work.
It’s not on you to change our profession. It’s on all of us.
'Think of talking to that woman - that teacher, performer, or administrator who is also helping with the change from pull-ups to big boy pants, reading the stories, making breakfast, seeing that there are raspberries for snacks, encouraging the piano practice, driving to swim lessons, scheduling the appointments for the booster shots - and asking THAT person whether they can handle the demands of any damn job at all.'
We have to examine our attitudes about women and where their energies rightfully belong, the assumptions that motherhood takes women out of serious pursuit of anything else. We have to look at how our society still puts full responsibility for childcare decisions on women’s shoulders, and how that comes through in what we do and don’t expect, ask, and support. We have to open our eyes to the fact that all of the above still makes women conceal their pregnancies, cover their difficulties, take their kids’ artwork off the fridge in case it’s in camera range...and how all of THAT added labour and worry, large and small, impacts women’s chances in the long run. Think of talking to that woman - that teacher, performer, or administrator who is also helping with the change from pull-ups to big boy pants, reading the stories, making breakfast, seeing that there are raspberries for snacks, encouraging the piano practice, driving to swim lessons, scheduling the appointments for the booster shots - and asking THAT person whether they can handle the demands of any damn job at all. That’s what motivates me to speak and encourage you to do the same. This isn’t a rant after all.
We are sharing stories and strategies, bringing them into the light.
We’re not dodging bullets.
We are making a shield.
KATHLEEN KELLY’s projects and repertoire are wide-ranging and diverse. From Mozart to commissioned works by her peers, she is both deeply experienced in the classical vocal canon and engaged in new creation. Recent notable projects include a recording with soprano Emily Albrink of four world premiere song cycles, leading the world premiere of Matt Bohler’s opera FAT PIG (composed for activist soprano Tracy Cox), and the filmed opera Interstate, composed by Kamala Sankaram, co-authored and performed by Kathleen and soprano Jennifer Cresswell, produced by Minnesota Opera, and now streaming on Marquee TV.
Kathleen has appeared internationally as a pianist in collaboration with singers, including appearances at Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and Vienna’s Musikverein. She is a published poet and essayist, and has written several English adaptations of operas as well as several librettos. She has worked with many companies including the San Francisco, Metropolitan, Houston Grand, and Vienna State Operas, and she is regularly invited to speak and write on womens’ issues in the opera industry.
These are the surveys mentioned:
PiPA Covid Research Report
And this is the UK EOC
and UK EEOC