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in the Performing Arts + Media
A PAAL Project for Change

PART 1: Pregnancy Discrimination

Part 1: Pregnancy

by Rachel Erwin with Rachel Spencer Hewitt + Adriana Gaviria

Pregnancy Photoshoot

When Diane Davis was cast at one of her dream companies, she was overjoyed. She cut her honeymoon a day short and flew to New York City for rehearsal, ready to take this leap in her career.

Two and a half weeks later, this dream became a nightmare.

Davis knew she was pregnant when she auditioned, but she decided not to tell anyone until she was past 12 weeks due to a prior miscarriage. Once she hit that milestone, she informed the director.

“And he said, ‘You know, I've been thinking about it, and I don't think this is gonna work. I just can't see how we can make this work,’” Davis said.

Diane D. | Actor
Image by Paul Green

He said he had spoken to the costuming team about working around her pregnancy. Since one of the characters Davis was playing was meant to be a virgin, he claimed the costuming team said it would be impossible. She later found out this was a lie when the costume designer called her to discuss how they would be changing the clothes to accommodate the baby bump.

Because he could not legally fire her,

the director asked Davis to willingly step down.

Davis was heart-broken. This was a dream job, and she needed the healthcare that came along with it. She tried to fight the director’s decision. 


“It was a humiliating position to be put into,” Davis said. “I had to defend my right to do this.” 


After trying to continue attending rehearsals, Davis' agent told her casting had given her an ultimatum: “either you get fired or you quit, but you don’t have a job here anymore.” At the advice of her agents, she stopped going to rehearsals.

A few weeks later, Davis asked for her severance pay. In her contract, she was promised four weeks of pay if she was terminated. The company told her that they did not technically fire her, as she did not show up to rehearsal. They refused her severance pay and, therefore, she was ineligible for unemployment. The company’s general manager claimed she had taken the job simply to get a payout, knowing she was pregnant and could not do it. Davis was horrified. 


“We both signed a contract. You forced me out of a job,” Davis said. “This is a no-brainer.”

Davis' story is not unique in the theatre industry.

Image by Richard Ciraulo

In the performing arts, there is a collectively-understood knowledge that starting a family is a career-ender. Discrimination against those who become pregnant, adopt or have children is rampant, yet the arts industry has tolerated it for as long as anyone can remember. People are repeatedly fired or told to hide their pregnancies while they can. Casting directors hesitate to cast them. Artistic directors claim that letting them go is necessary out of concern for their health. This, however, is often a less-offensive way of telling these people they are no longer wanted.

There are repeated examples of this tendency. Soprano Julie Fuchs, who was slated to play a leading role in the opera “The Magic Flute” at the Hamburg State Opera, was asked to step down only four days before the rehearsals began, due to her pregnancy, according to a 2018 article in The Guardian. She would have been four months pregnant on opening night, and she was told that her condition would “compromise the production’s artistic integrity” because staging may have been changed.

Fuchs’ Facebook post about the incident sparked outrage within the opera industry. Around 1400 people commented, and more than 1800 people shared it.

“As you can imagine, I am very disappointed as I am feeling vocally and physically in top form,” Fuchs said in her post. “I am fully committed to fulfilling my contracts as planned and previously announced.”

Julie F. | Singer
Tom S. | JD
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Tom Spiggle, an employment lawyer and board member of PAAL who specializes in cases involving pregnancy and parenting, said that, in his experience, the theatre industry sees the most issues when it comes to accepting parents.

“There's just sort of this notion, more in the theatre industry than others, that we just don't do pregnancy,” Spiggle said. “We just don't have time for you and your baby...

I think it's more pronounced than I have seen it in other industries.”

In general, firing someone based on their pregnancy is illegal, as is failing to hire them, according to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or PDA. The act states that “pregnant employees must be permitted to work as long as they are able to perform their jobs” in companies with 15 or more employees. Additionally, people are not required to disclose their pregnancies in an audition or interview.

Image by charlesdeluvio

Kate O’Phalen, a pregnancy policy and birth justice advocate, transitioned out of her acting career after she realized how intolerant it was.

“As I got into being a professional actor, I started to realize more of the ways that it was really difficult to be a woman in this industry,” said O’Phalen, who works with the Actors’ Equity Association, or Equity, to improve the industry for women, particularly caregivers.

Throughout her time at the union, O’Phalen has witnessed many of the challenges parent-artists face.

A major issue is that if an artist stops working while pregnant, they no longer qualify for Equity’s healthcare coverage at a time when they need it most. This past year, O’Phalen has worked to change this, and Equity will be establishing provisions for parents to maintain their health insurance.

Some actors were being told by costume designers that they could work until the costumes did not fit anymore, which is illegal, said O’Phalen. Other problems include tour vehicles not allowing children onboard, living in shared housing or housing that is not child-friendly and salaries that are too low to cover the cost of childcare. Often, babysitters make more money than the actors themselves. 

“The theatre industry is the last bastion of socially acceptable pregnancy discrimination because of the way that our bodies are instruments,” O’Phalen said.

“People think that it’s okay to tell people when they can and can’t work, even though really it’s illegal.”

Kate O. | Activist
Light and Shadow

This phenomenon is not limited to performers. According to records obtained through a public records request from the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, Susan Andrews, director of marketing and public relations at Stoneham Theatre, now known as the Greater Boston Stage Company, filed a discrimination complaint related to her pregnancy in 2015.


After informing her supervisor of her condition, she was called into a meeting with the producing artistic director six days later, and her employment was terminated, allegedly due to “performance issues regarding specific plays that did not sell well.” In 2016, Andrews settled with the company, but she believed she was discriminated against on the basis of her pregnancy.

Susan A. | Marketer
Image by Alexander Andrews

Valerie Marcus Ramshur, a New York-based costume designer, faced similar challenges.

While trying to conceive, she experienced repeated miscarriages, and she had no real role models in the design industry who were also parents. When she finally became pregnant, people she had once trusted as mentors told her to give up. 

“I had several of my mentors just tell me ‘That's it for your career. Don't even bother,” Ramshur said.

“One sort of patted my tummy and was like ‘That's the end of your career.”

After having her son, she began doing more television work, typically on a job for three weeks at a time. She would often go five months without work. Gradually, she realized she was being passed over for opportunities that her fellow designers were taking advantage of. 

“Why am I not getting this?” Ramshur asked. “They’re like, ‘[You] got a kid. They know that you can't work past 5 p.m.’ Who said that? Who said I couldn't work?

Decisions start to be made for you.”

Breastfeeding presents problems as well, she said. One time, she was working on a soap opera and a baby upstairs started crying. Her son was still breastfeeding at the time, so her breast began to leak, as she had not had a chance to pump.

“All the men in my department were like, ‘Oh God, breastfeeding,” Ramshur said. “You never asked if you could take a break to go pump. You just have to secretly sneak out. You're constantly hiding it. You can never talk about it.”

Lena Sands, another costume designer, said she ran into these obstacles as well. She would often pump in her car, sometimes while driving, since she was typically at a site for only two hours at a time and did not want to step away. One particular site was dirty, she said, and she would have to pump in her car even while working full days and nights. 

“There's no rulebook to follow. No one is saying ‘No, you can't pump,’ but also no one is reaching out to you and saying ‘this is going to be your space for pumping,’” Sands said. “When I was pregnant it was like ‘this is not a concern of anyone else, and this is not a concern of the show, so no one needs to know about this.’”

Valerie M. R. | Designer
Lena S. | Designer
Untitled design (28).png

Deena Selenow, director of “The Bumps,” a play that features pregnant actors, said that everyone forgets about the aftermath that comes from having a child.

“It's interesting because when you're pregnant it's like, ‘I am a pregnant goddess,’” Selenow said. “They say ‘Do you need anything? Are you okay? Are you hungry?,’ Then you have the baby and people are like ‘Great you had it, let's get back to work.’

That was when I saw people getting amnesia.”

Deena S. | Director
Untitled design (30).png

While working on a recent show, Davis experienced this “amnesia.” She was met with hostility when she asked for a way to contact her family during working hours. The dressing rooms were underground, so cell phone service was minimal, and there was no landline for actors to use. With three small children and a mother who had been diagnosed with cancer, this setup was not functional for Davis. When she brought her concerns to the company manager, he told her she could pay to have a phone installed if she wanted.

“I was like, ‘I don't think I should have to do that,’” Davis said. “I don’t know of any other places to work where you can't contact your family. And he just said ‘Well that's not part of your job.’”


Davis alerted her deputy, a cast member elected to serve as a liaison between Equity, the performers and stage managers. The deputy encouraged her to apologize to the company manager and consider seeking therapy to deal with the struggles of being a mother. 


“The deputy left the room and I was like ‘what just happened to me?’” Davis said.

“She told me I was angry and hysterical and that I should apologize. And that I needed to get help for my hysteria.

It was like she used modern day language to say, basically, you’re a hysterical woman.”

Untitled design (29).png

Director Gina Rattan knew that getting pregnant would not be easy career-wise. She noticed how people hesitated to hire her once they knew, though they would blame it on her schedule and “conflicts.” Her employers questioned her commitment to the projects she did work on. 


“Your commitment to the project and your career is questioned, if not outright then just sort of said like, ‘Okay, well now you have another priority that's not our show. So, therefore, this can't be your priority as well,’” Rattan said. 


Rattan emphasized that, though her coworkers supported her while pregnant, the space she was in was not conducive to carrying a child. When she needed to rest, her only option was to lie on the floor, something she said would be unthinkable post-pandemic. 


“I was sleeping on the floor, which is so gross now,” Rattan said. “We were in this theater in January and February and March and I was like ‘There's nowhere to go, there's nowhere to rest.’ It's not even like I have an office, so I'm sleeping on the floor covered in germs.”

Gina R. | Director
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Iris Heimer, a human resources professional, says now is the time to change the industry. 


“Just because you've never created a childcare fund in your annual budget doesn't mean you can’t. Just because you haven't done it before doesn’t mean you can't start doing it now,” Heimer said. “Just because you've never invested in a dedicated lactation space in your organization before, doesn't mean you can't.”


Heimer left the industry after she felt her presence as an actor was not valued. She felt “replaceable.” While interning as a casting assistant, she recalls being asked to throw away three massive boxes of headshots. Her boss told her “this is the job.”

“I just really felt like there was always a gun in the back of my head,” Heimer said. “It started really taking a toll on me emotionally, the sort of grind of the actor.”


Rattan echoed Heimer’s sentiment. She said the industry demands too much for too little. 


“There's such a legacy of this really toxic all-or-nothing culture with working as an artist,” Rattan said.

“There's such a legacy of this really toxic all-or-nothing culture with working as an artist,” Rattan said.

Kate H. | Actor
Drops of Water

Some companies have already started finding solutions. Kate Hurster, an actress, was able to perform while pregnant. The costuming team worked around the pregnancy, and they even built body padding for continuity’s sake. They found someone to understudy her role for the entirety of her maternity leave. Still, Hurster worried that she was demanding too much.


“I basically told the artistic director that if anything was wrong with this pregnancy, if there was anything genetically awry, I was going to terminate because I'm older,” Hurster said. “I was afraid, and I had reason to be because you can be recast for any number of bizarre reasons...That said, I was accommodated. I got to make the call about when I left the show.”

Hurster also said that directors and stage managers should work to decrease rehearsal time. 


“You realize that you don't actually need eight hours of rehearsal a day or 10 hours of rehearsal a day or six days of rehearsal a week,” Hurster said. “You don't need that. And there's no reason that anyone needs to work until midnight either. There's no reason that we need to work six days a week, actually, ever.”

There's no reason that we need to work six days a week, actually, ever.”

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Other parent-artists are also advocating for an intersectional approach to ending pregnancy discrimination within the industry. Fly Jamerson, a playwright, director, dramaturg and designer, said they had their own set of challenges in their pregnancy as a gender non-conforming and transgender person. They say there is a lack of gender-inclusive affirmations within the world of parenthood, and that takes a toll on those who do not fit into the traditional “motherhood” narrative. 


“I think that something that really struck me during my pregnancy is that a lot of the work that organizations are doing and that individuals are doing in terms of supporting parents and artists... I feel like there's still a very gendered discourse inside of support groups or in outreach or granting, or all kinds of stuff really focused on the femininity of motherhood,” Jamerson said.

As theatres continue to reinvent their policies and promote inclusivity, Jamerson says that “advocating for parents in the theatre has to be intersectional.”

Fly J. | Playwright/Dir./Dram./Designer
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O’Phalen agrees. She said that pregnancy has to be viewed in a number of different ways, rather than in a vacuum. 

“You're pregnant and undocumented. You're pregnant and a teenager. You're pregnant and you don't have health insurance,” O’Phalen said. “One of the interesting things about reproductive justice is how it intersects with so many other issues.”

Thanks to the pandemic, however, the theatre industry has been forced to pause and reflect. Much of the conversation has been rightfully centered around anti-racism, but how do we integrate pregnancy and parenting discrimination?

“You're pregnant and undocumented. You're pregnant and a teenager. You're pregnant and you don't have health insurance,” O’Phalen said. “One of the interesting things about reproductive justice is how it intersects with so many other issues.”

PAAL's resource The New Standard of Care features 4 Pillars of Justice in caregiver support, with the first stating: 

"You cannot have an anti-racist organization without formal caregiver support. Caregiver discrimination and/or neglect in the workplace impacts Black, Indigenous, People of Color caregivers more than any other group."

In her article "Parents of Color and The Need For Anti-Racist Theatre Practices", Nicole Brewer - founder of Anti-Racist Theatre and PAAL Board Member - shares "When we don’t view systematic inequity through the lens of race and racism, our anti-oppression practice remains rooted in oppressive values and inactive language."

Nicole B. | Anti-Racist Theatre/Dir.
Colored Theatre Lights

It's not just creative teams that experience discrimination. Often, crew and management are forced to work overtime and the invisible labor portion is high, increasing the likelihood for discrimination to go unaddressed - or unnoticed, completely.

PAAL's running Discrimination Survey has collected some of these experiences under the safety of anonymity. 

Stage Manager

"While working as a production stage manager, the production manager required that I work 12-15 hour days immediately following a miscarriage, and later while 9 months pregnant, including while teching a show in early labor. When I returned from maternity leave, he allowed directors to harass me about asking for rehearsal coverage, openly challenged and confronted me about needing more than 10 min breaks to pump (in front of up to 60 people), and refused to allow a flexible work schedule to accommodate childcare needs. After complaining to his supervisor and having a mediated conversation with one of the directors who was harassing me, I was asked to sign a letter taking responsibility for the situation (I refused)."

"They made me lose out on the last months of solid paychecks I would be able to get before having a baby. Because I was a freelancer I had no maternity leave coming to me, which I knew in advance. Because of their blatant mishandling of the situation, I also had no work during my third trimester and no suggestion or offer to return to work post-partum."


"I was employed by a major NYC non-profit for 10 years. Two years of this time I was a full time staff member of the lighting department, after which I left to pursue a Masters Degree. I returned to the theater as a freelancer...Toward the beginning of my seventh month of pregnancy a full time staff member was fired and the head of the department asked if I would fill in for that office position temporarily until they found someone to fill the position. I was asked specifically as a favor to the department because I had completed the duties in the past in my time as a staff member and would not need to be trained. They then offered me 7 dollars an hour less than I was making as a stagehand for this temporary work. I told them I unfortunately could not accept a pay cut (my hourly rate being what it was after the dedication and experience of being with the organization for a decade) and would prefer to remain in my current position as freelance electrician. I was already booked for several more weeks of work in that position and at that rate. I complete those weeks of work with no problems, as a functioning and integral member of the crew.


I was not hired again for the changeover for the next show, with no discussion of why. I was told by an assistant in the department that the Lighting Supervisor had specifically said not to hire me anymore. When I did not hear from the department again I sent an email expressing my dismay at not being hired, at which point I was offered a few meager days of work.


At that time I complained to a member of production management that it was unacceptable to punish a pregnant crew member who was still an active part of the crew by forcing them into a lower paying job. Those days were my last offer of any employment from the theater for which I worked for a decade. There was never a discussion about my abilities shifting during pregnancy. I know for a fact that crew members were hired to do jobs like cutting color that required sitting for a week at a time. Not only was I qualified to do this at 7-8 months pregnant, I was overqualified.


They made me lose out on the last months of solid paychecks I would be able to get before having a baby. Because I was a freelancer I had no maternity leave coming to me, which I knew in advance. Because of their blatant mishandling of the situation, I also had no work during my third trimester and no suggestion or offer to return to work post-partum."

Anon. | Stage Manager
Anon. | Crew
Colored Theatre Lights

The Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts, or PAAL, is trying to solve problems like these in the industry. With their staff and board training on discrimination prevention and improving care in the workplace - including their Compassion Training and Anti-Opression and Caregiving modules as well as their upcoming Sex and Pregnancy Discrimination: Essentials for Staff and Organizations at the annual PAAL Summit. The organization also works with individuals and institutions to provide childcare grants and stipends to lessen the burden on working parents. 

They have also compiled the PAAL National Handbook of Best Practices, which is being made nationally available to theaters in the United States. It contains interviews with professional parent artists and supportive institutions, featuring stories of discrimination and job loss. It presents a set of guidelines and recommendations for theaters of all sizes to follow when dealing with parent artists. 

PAAL has also created a New Standard of Care with 4 Pillars of Justice and 11 Action Items for reducing discrimination and increasing support that is accessible for all organizations and is available for free on their website. 

The organization started thanks to Rachel Spencer Hewitt’s journaling during her pregnancy. She had written down all her experiences as a parent and an actress, and she decided to publish them online in a blog. People began to reach out to her with their own stories, and PAAL launched in three cities in 2017. 

“The stories of pregnancy discrimination are really astonishing, because the running theme of the discrimination itself was how immediately the field accepted that this was a person on their way out. The belly was a timer,” Hewitt said. “Why are you throwing me a goodbye party? Why have we all just accepted that this is a sign of farewell?”

Rachel S. H. | PAAL
Image by Ryunosuke Kikuno



Pregnancy + Sex Discrimination, Loss, IVF, and Other Care




Discrimination and Identifying the Intersections



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Coming Soon: Part 2
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