Honey, I Hid the Kids! Caring for Professional Parents

52 Tuesdays

With the arrival of the first free screen-sector creche in Australia last year, courtesy of Screen Forever, a clear sign was sent to industry workers: you no longer need to hide the fact that you have small children.

Did you ever really need to? Well, yes, apparently, according to the Raising Films Australia screen-industry-survey report Honey, I Hid the Kids!: Experiences of Parents and Carers in the Australian Screen Industry, which was released at Screen Forever 2018.  

The survey, which was based on a 2016 report released by UK sister organisation Raising Films, was co-developed for the Australian context by the University of Technology Sydney and Women in Film and Television (WIFT), with financial support from Create NSW. It involved more than 600 respondents, 77 per cent of whom identified as female. Although women only represent 35 per cent of the Australian screen industry’s workforce, the fact that the majority of responses came from women pinpoints, in the report’s words, ‘the unequal distribution of caring responsibilities that fall on women and […] the gendered dimension of caring and parenting experiences’. Make no mistake, these are issues that overwhelmingly affect the careers of mothers rather than fathers.

Seventy-four per cent of respondents thought that being a carer had a ‘negative impact’ on their careers, while 73 per cent found it ‘impossible to difficult to vary the hours and amount of paid care’ they could access. Many women felt the need to ‘hide’ or downplay their parenting roles, with some even describing the elaborate lengths they go to in order to render their children ‘out of the picture’.

As Megan Riakos – WIFT NSW president and one of the key instigators of the survey – told screenhub in October: ‘How can we even have a conversation about family-friendly workplaces if people don’t even feel they can admit to being mothers?’ And, as fellow survey researchers Sheree Gregory and Deb Verhoeven wrote in The Conversation around the same time, while twenty-first century women are advised to ‘lean in’ and embrace both parenting and building a career, the reality in the screen industry is that they are managing their difficulties by ‘leaning out’: ‘They work as though they don’t have children, and parent as though they don’t have a job.’

This is certainly concerning. One of the key rationales for having a local screen industry is that we need to tell stories about ourselves. Do we want storytellers who can’t capture the full breadth of human experience? Do we want stories told only by child-free workaholics? What makes it even more galling for women is that fathers seem to experience a positive career effect – what the report terms a ‘fatherhood bonus’ – from having had kids and talking about them in the workplace, presumably while someone else is looking after them.

How best to juggle paid work and caring for family continues to be one of the most vexed issues in twenty-first century society generally, but there are particular challenges within the screen industry. Many of these are related to the fact that 60 per cent of the carers surveyed are freelance or self-employed, thereby making them unentitled to conventional maternity leave and guaranteed return-to-work provisions.

Overall, the survey determined that respondents’ top five concerns were: long hours; financial uncertainty; networking or screening events being held in the evening; prejudice or a lack of confidence on the part of funders and employers; and insufficient childcare ser­vices. This last point is significant in its complexity. Regular child­care is set up for regular office hours, fifty weeks a year. If you need to dip in and out of that model, you’ll be paying huge premiums for late notice and casual access – that’s if you’re lucky enough to be able to find care at all. Childcare-centre waiting lists can take years. Other ­options like nannies do exist but are expensive, and again, are usually more suited to parents with structured employment.

To address these issues, the survey proposed that childcare be provided on location and accounted for in production budgets, and that part-time or flexible roles (like job-sharing) be made more available. There are also recommendations for flexible, short-notice, state-funded twenty-four-hour care services for children or elders, and stronger union rules regarding work in the early morning, late at night and on the weekend. Lastly, it was suggested that tax reliefs be offered for care expenses. This sounds like an impressive wish list, and staunch realists will, of course, wonder who pays for it all.

It’s clear that creative solutions need to come from the policy sector, and must support productions rather than burdening them with onerous rules and expenses. The South Australian Film Corporation has led the way by responding to the survey with newly announced initiatives. These include a requirement that major projects hire at least one crew member who is returning to work after a caring role, and the introduction of incentives for films that use different methods of production, including flexible shooting schedules like that employed on Sophie Hyde’s feature film 52 Tuesdays (2013). 

The Raising Films Australia survey is just the beginning of a long conversation about caring – not just for family members, but for the time-starved carers themselves. It’s a conversation the industry needs to have, and we hope to see an avalanche of practical measures in response.