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Research finds parents pay career penalty in performing arts

Performers including Cate Blanchett, Paloma Faith and Federico Bonelli call for change following Birkbeck/PiPA research into low wages and work-life balance in the performing arts.

Paloma Faith, who said the performing arts industry should do more to support people to keep working at every stage of their lives
Paloma Faith, who said the performing arts industry should do more to support people to keep working at every stage of their lives.

New research from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology and Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (PiPA) found that 43% of performing artists who left their careers did so because they became parents.

Over 2500 UK workers from the performing arts, including 1000 parents and carers, took the Balancing Act Survey. It found that carers pay a significant penalty in terms of well-being and remuneration in order to maintain a career in the performing arts; and that they are far more likely to leave the industry than non-carers, leaning to a drain in talent and reduced diversity in the arts.

Respondents to the survey reported having a worse work-life balance than workers in other industries. This is in part due to low wages in the sector, meaning they have to seek alternative work in other areas. Carers are particularly under-employed in the performing arts despite having strong commitments to their careers, meaning they are likely to make significant work-life compromises.

Professor Almuth McDowall led the research. She said: “Huge strides have been taken to make the arts more accessible to all and to attract diverse audiences and the same efforts must now be made to attract and retain talent from a more diverse workforce. We are witnessing parents and carers pushed out of performing arts careers due to low wages, precariousness and a difficulty to combine their work with other roles in life.  

“The sector could benefit from a cultural shift towards sustainable, flexible and inclusive work practices including increased availability of shared parental leave. Other sectors can also learn from this research as zero hour contracts and precarious working are becoming normalised.”

PiPA co-founder Cassie Raine added: "Our research shows the difference that family friendly working practices could make to our industry. There is an urgent need to remove systemic barriers to work and to support and retain experienced and talented people.”

Key findings:

  • Caring hits earnings: The median earnings for carers are £20,000 per annum, 13% lower than for those without caring responsibilities (£23,000).
  • Median earnings for carers working freelance are lowest, at £15,000, which is substantially lower than the estimated UK living wage (£17,062 or £19,890 in London).
  • Earnings from the performing arts are unlikely to cover expected outgoings for over a third of participants and nearly twice as many said that earnings do not cover unexpected expenses. Carers were also least likely to agree that their basic needs are being met by their earnings.
  • Carers seek proportionally more work outside the performing arts to boost their income. This in effect subsidises their careers more so than those without caring responsibilities. Overall, more than half of the participants were working in other fields to top up earnings.
  • Caring sacrifices were even more pronounced for women: more than 8 out of 10 women with caring responsibilities indicated that they either worked part-time or freelance, compared to 59% of other female participants. In contrast, the employment structure for men with caring responsibilities remained comparable to men without caring responsibilities.
  • Underemployment: 76% of carers had to turn down work because of childcare responsibilities (even higher for women at 80%); 68% were unable to attend auditions and other opportunities. More freelance workers with caring responsibilities have had to turn down work (85%) than other workers. Yet, 40% of carers would prefer to boost their income by working an additional two days per week.

Calls for change:

Actor Cate Blanchett said: "Working in theatre or any creative profession can be very rewarding but comes with its own unique challenges, such as regular late nights, last minute engagements and long periods of time away from home, all of which are amplified when you have family commitments. The Balancing Act report is a welcome and necessary step towards addressing these barriers which for many prove insurmountable. This call-to-arms is an opportunity for us all to step up and find the creative solutions needed to giving people the support they need to look after their family whilst continuing to do the work they love."

Singer-songwriter Paloma Faith said: “We’ve all got our own paths to follow and we have to respect each others’ choices. A choice between having a family or working as a musician isn’t a choice. As an industry we’ve got to find a way to fully embrace and support people to keep working at every stage of their lives. For many that includes looking after other people, whether it’s kids, relatives or each other. The richness of that experience can only enhance the music we make. The PiPA survey shows how hard people, especially women, are having to work to stay in the business. There are things we can do to make it easier and now is the moment to stop, listen and take action.”

Federico Bonelli, Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet said: “We get to be dancers because we have a passion. Too often we have to stop because we want to have a family. The Balancing Act report shows how difficult it is for carers to have fulfilling careers while having caring responsibilities and points out how these barriers might be addressed. As artists we strive to be relevant to our world, we want our art to be seen by as diverse audiences as possible. To achieve this it is essential that the people creating the work have wide-ranging lived experiences and are as diverse as possible. A sector that better supports parents and carers will result in better, more relevant art that can be enjoyed by many.”

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