“You’re pregnant. You need to not work in the industry. Go home, get ready for the baby and support your husband’s career. He might be head of the department one day.”
That’s what Heather McQuillan, 36, remembers her boss telling her while she was pregnant and working in the props department for a television show, where her husband also worked. Shocked, McQuillan reached out to other mothers working in the industry—and discovered that she was not the only woman receiving this type of treatment.
“It’s very much the culture of our industry,” says McQuillan, whose son Maverick is now 2 years old. She describes working in TV and film as “all or nothing industry,” where people take pride in 80-hour weeks and there’s an understanding that if you can’t manage, there are dozens of people eager and waiting to take your job.
The industry’s lack of accommodation for workers shouldering childcare and family care responsibilities often leads to women leaving all together, explains McQuillan, who is now the executive director of Reel Families for Change Canada. “We find that women tend to have to sacrifice their careers, and men end up sacrificing their time with their families,” she says. And experts fear the pandemic is making things much worse.
Across Canada, and in various industries, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is forcing women — especially women of colour — out of the workforce. The impact on women has been so great that the economic recession caused by COVID-19 has been referred to as the first “she-session.”
At the onset of the pandemic last March, Women in Film and Television (WIFT) Canada Coalition set up online check-ins to see how their members across the country were faring. Susan Brinton, the Coalition’s project manager, says it was clear from those sessions that women working in film and television, much like women in other industries, were struggling.
“It was either that women are in low-paid positions that put them more at risk [of losing their jobs], or they’re having to make the choice of staying home to look after the kids because the kids are now at home,” says Brinton.
Prior to the pandemic, things were improving. McQuillan notes that unions were starting to support the need for childcare. Celebrities, like Carey Mulligan, were speaking out about how the film industry could better support working mothers. There was also an increasing openness to mothers bringing children to work or having on-set childcare, which McQuillan says is “transformational” for those working long hours. In 2019, film festivals including Cannes, TIFF, Venice and San Sebastian also began offering designated areas for changing and feeding, and support for childcare.
Producer Julie Baldassi had her son, Elliot, in August 2019 and brought him to the Sundance Film Festival in January, but the festival lacked support for mothers. “There was a lot of breastfeeding in really strange places, like in hotel lobbies, in restaurants,” recalls Baldassi. “There was one moment where I literally had to start breastfeeding him in a parking garage.”
During the pandemic, Baldassi and her husband, who also works in the industry, have found a rhythm of balancing childcare duties with their workload. “We’re basically doing a full-time job in part-time hours,” says Baldassi, which she and her husband, cinematographer Michael LeBlanc, are self-employed and able to work flexible hours. Her most recent project was shot in Nova Scotia over the summer, but when COVID-19 restrictions made it impossible for her to bring her family to the East-coast set, she ended up producing the film remotely from Ontario.
Experts worry the pandemic may undo progress for women in the workforce, and McQuillan and Brinton share those concerns for women and parents in screen industries. “I definitely have a huge concern about sliding back and sliding back quickly, unless we actively pursue solutions that solve the problems,” says McQuillan.
To better understand the impact the pandemic is having on women in screen industries, WIFT partnered with Reel Families and, with the support of the Canada Media Fund, launched an industry-wide online survey in January. McQuillan explains that though she has a good inkling what the results may show, the hope is that the survey will provide concrete numbers to demonstrate specific barriers women are facing and whether supports vary, for instance, in independent films, unionized films or live projects.
“It was difficult before the pandemic for women in this industry — especially when you are looking below-the-line at unions and guilds, where it was difficult for women to progress — and I think the pandemic has actually made it worse,” says Brinton.
Brinton adds that they understand this survey may not paint a full picture of intersectional and systemic issues so the research team is conducting additional focus groups and interviews with Indigenous women and women of colour. (In 2017, less than 2% of TV contracts went to Canadian women of colour. In film, less than 2% of writers and 5% of directors were women of colour. There were no contracted cinematographers who were women of colour.)
In the years leading up to 2020, there was a significant push to make screen industries more inclusive, but some worry that momentum has been lost, or at least slowed down due to the pandemic. Director Haya Waseem says beforehand, there were more projects looking specifically for women or diverse perspectives, but now, “things are murkier” because of the overall scarcity of opportunities, plus travel and COVID-19 restrictions that have to also be considered. Waseem, who lives in New York City and shot her first feature film in 2020, says the pandemic has made her rethink the industry’s “all or nothing” mentality and re-examine her work-life balance.
“Women are used to adversity,” says Waseem. “We are constantly making progress and the pandemic has impacted everybody —women, mothers — and I think it’s just another phase in our existence to keep pushing.”
So far, more than 200 women have responded to the new “Child and Family Care in Canada’s screen-based industries” survey. With the resulting data, McQuillan says organizers plan to identify what changes, such as flexible work hours or on-set childcare options, could help support and retain women in Canada’s screen industries.
With everyone staying home, Brinton also hopes there may be a greater appreciation of what women and families need to be able to work, whether that means normalizing accommodations for parents or the government providing universal childcare. Data is still being collected, but Brinton says the need to better support women and parents in Canada’s screen industries is pressing. “Something has to change, for sure.”
Written for the Academy by Ishani Nath.