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When Beyoncé was pregnant with her twins, Rumi and Sir Carter, one of the first things she did once past her first trimester was whip off her clothes and pose as a goddess for a photoshoot to announce her happy news. This depiction of her as mother and artist was a glorious celebration, something every female musician should be able to enjoy if they choose to have a baby – glamorous photoshoot or not.

Sadly, for many female musicians, a pregnancy announcement can be something to fear rather than celebrate. Anecdotally, the MU reports a rise in the number of women seeking advice after negative reactions from bookers, promoters or band members; stories that are backed up by some shocking figures.

An Equality and Human Rights Commission report from 2016 revealed that 77% of women surveyed said they’d experienced discrimination because of their pregnancy, and one in nine mothers felt forced to leave their job – scaled up to the general population, this could amount to 54,000 women out of work simply for becoming mothers.

Precarious workplace conditions

The picture is even bleaker in the entertainment sector, particularly once women have given birth. Campaigning group Parents In The Performing Arts reports that “work in the performing arts is precarious, with one in three participants saying that they do not have a formal contract in place… 76% of parents and 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.”

Pregnant Jocelyn Freeman sits, one hand on her baby bump, another on a piano.
MU member, concert pianist and conductor Jocelyn Freeman was “shocked” when she lost a contract because of her pregnancy.

Female musicians facing discrimination in the workplace

MU member, concert pianist and conductor Jocelyn Freeman was “shocked” when she lost a contract because of her pregnancy. She was “super-proud” of the strong relationships she had spent years building with promoters. Sadly, one of those relationships came crashing down when she contacted a promoter five months ahead of a concert to tell him she was pregnant.

“I wrote to him to tell him I was looking forward to the concert and also to say, ‘I’ll be pregnant. I’d like to have someone on standby just in case the baby comes early.’ He wrote back and said, ‘You should not perform.’ At first I didn’t realise why. The threat of losing work was my biggest fear when it came to having children. I’d grown up in an environment where there was still a bit of an attitude that women should stay at home.

“I’m passionate about getting out there and making sure women feel they can have that choice, a rewarding family life and a career, so when the email came through I was in tears. I felt like the choice and control had been taken away. It was my worst fear come true.”

The promoter cited ‘health and safety’ as the reason for the cancellation. On speaking with the MU, Freeman says she was advised that this was an overreaction and not very lawful. She suspects that the promoter may consider pregnant performers to be unreliable.

A culture of silence

“It’s society that discriminates,” affirms MU Live Performance Official Kelly Wood. “It’s not even the industry, it’s just the way things are… Until relatively recently, it was normal for a woman to stay at home and not have a career – it’s not that long ago. I also think in the music industry, a huge part of it is based around the aesthetic of women – that you have to look a certain way on stage.”

The situation is exacerbated by a culture of silence. Women, says Joeli Brearley, from support and campaigning group Pregnant Then Screwed, are too frightened to speak out about workplace discrimination because of the fear of losing more work. “You can’t talk about pregnancy and discrimination because you’re branded as a troublemaker,” she says.

Freeman was forced to choose between a compromise, agreeing to postpone the contract until 2020, or “kicking up a stink” and the potential loss of the relationship and years of bookings. “I’ve accepted the postponement,” says Freeman. “I’d love to have a shiny story about how I’d won and I’m paving the way for women, but it doesn’t really feel like that. There are still difficulties.”

Discrimination doesn’t stop at the end of pregnancy – it can also continue into the early years of motherhood. Brearley says it’s “frustrating” that in the three years since the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report “the government has done nothing. It’s being talked about but there’s no action”.

Alongside the work of groups such as Pregnant Then Screwed, which is lobbying for political change on several issues, including to increase the time limit for tribunal claims from two to six months, it undoubtedly helps that successful women in the entertainment industry are also campaigning for change.

Fighting for Shared Parental Leave

Olga FitzRoy, an award-winning engineer, has gathered momentum with her fight to give freelance workers the same rights as employees when it comes to Shared Parental Leave. “I had been lucky enough not to experience serious discrimination or harassment in my professional life, but this all changed when I had my son in 2015,” FitzRoy told Music Week.

“While clients and studios were accommodating and loyal (I breastfed my baby in the control room at Abbey Road while printing a mix – glad those days are behind me!), the government had other ideas. While the £140 a week Maternity Allowance I received was better than nothing, there was no option for me to share my leave equally with my husband. I was restricted to working for only 10 ‘keeping in touch’ (KIT) days while on leave…"

“Introduced by the coalition government in 2015, Shared Parental Leave was supposed to level the playing field when it came to childcare. Yet a huge proportion of the 150,000 people working in music are self-employed, and therefore not eligible.

Although self-employed mothers get Maternity Allowance, self-employed dads cannot claim a single day of paid leave. Many families of musicians, composers, music producers and touring crew are therefore forced to revert to a 1950s stereotype.

FitzRoy has garnered support from high-profile artists such as Coldplay, Keane, Laura Marling and Ed Harcourt who signed an open letter to the prime minister alongside The Musicians’ Union, Ivors Academy and Help Musicians. Former Coronation Street actress turned first Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin has picked up the baton and is fighting for a change in Shared Parental Leave in Parliament.

“The issue of not being able to share parental leave as a freelancer adds another financial burden on women alongside existing concerns around working as a mother in the music industry,” says John Shortell, MU Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

“It places the entire burden of childcare on women. That reinforces gender inequality. Then there’s taking time off work, losing all those contacts; it’s just barrier after barrier. We’ve also had members hide their pregnancy for as long as they can so people aren’t put off booking them.” Freeman supports this, telling the MU that she hasn’t spread the word about her pregnancy too much, “largely because of the disappointing initial reaction, but I’m gaining confidence to do so now”.

The issue of not being able to share parental leave as a freelancer adds another financial burden on women alongside existing concerns around working as a mother in the music industry.

Pregnant Then Screwed is running campaigns to improve the status quo for pregnant women and mothers, including subsidised childcare from the age of six months old and for three months’ ring-fenced parental leave for both parents at 90% of salary. “Some of the campaigns are quite radical,” says Brearley. “But you’re not going to change things by tinkering around the edges.”

Continue fighting for your rights at work

While the current situation regarding pregnant women and mothers in the music industry is hardly ideal, John Shortell believes female musicians are feeling more confident about coming forward. “We are there to offer support and we can talk through options and consequences. It’s about our members realising that there are options and that it’s not just about accepting what’s happening, or accepting what an organiser or promoter has said to you.”

While Freeman’s experience was deeply upsetting she refuses to be bowed by it. “If I think I can do the concert, I’ll do the concert. That, as ever, is my professional prerogative.” And she’s looking forward to celebrating the birth of her baby: “The arrival of my little one will enrich who I am.”

Advice on maternity, parental and adoption workplace rights

Together with Maternity Action we've developed a guidance pack for musicians to their work rights. Learn everything about:

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Katie Nicholls

Katie is a freelance journalist and editor whose features and reviews have appeared in titles such as Mojo, The Guardian and Kerrang!

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