Connecting the Dots: Why the SheCession Is an Arts Story

Women in the United States suffered a net loss of over 5 million jobs in the first 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of which were held by women of color, wiping out at least a generation’s worth of progress in the workplace. As women continue to bear the brunt of childcare and domestic responsibilities, many are left wondering if their hard-won positions will ever be restored. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. arts and culture sector has suffered an estimated $15.2 billion in financial losses (admissions, non-admissions and expenditures), as performing arts organizations also are dealing with an additional estimated $15.5 billion reduction in sales and audience spending.

These are two devastating blows to the U.S. economy, yet they are too often treated as if they are separate issues needing wholly different solutions.

Federally mandated paid family and medical leave would offer women, especially women in the arts, the ability to maintain their jobs, destigmatize familial responsibility in the workplace, and pour billions of dollars back into the U.S. economy, as working families currently lose $22.5 billion in wages annually due to lack of paid family and medical leave.

We hear constant rallying cries to “fund the arts” and are told how essential arts organizations are to the U.S. economy, yet there is deafening silence when it comes to the disproportionate burden the largely female arts workforce bears in terms of childcare, home schooling, and elder care. U.S.-based activists and pundits frequently point to the European model (or in Australia or New Zealand) of government support for performing and fine arts, yet they largely ignore the vital second part of this equation: Those same governments that fund the arts so generously also broadly support mechanisms such as paid parental leave and government subsidized neighborhood childcare centers—reflecting full recognition and compensation of women workers for their vital labor in arts and culture, as well as their roles at home.

The fact is, women are overrepresented in the working class of the arts world (e.g., 65% of lower- and mid-tier employees in the arts and culture sector in New York are women). Men, meanwhile, are demographically more likely to be leading arts organizations, and those women who do get into leadership positions lag in their ability to reach the highest rungs of the ladder. As noted in the Dance Data Project® Data Byte on our Connecting the Dots – #YesThisIsAnArtsStory campaign, America is looking at a generational loss of female leadership because they must either choose between their families or their jobs. The pipeline is now going dry.


“Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year.” — Anita Bhatia, UN Women Deputy Executive Director


The presumption in the U.S. seems to be that despite the vital contribution of arts to the economy (4.5% of the GDP, $878 billion industry, 5.1 million jobs) and to quality of life of our communities, the decision to have a child (or children) is a personal lifestyle choice that comes at individual expense, having no bearing on how these institutional “impact accelerators” conduct business.

A coalition-built proposal “To rebuild and reimagine the United States post pandemic, we must put creative workers to work” includes 16 specific recommendations for necessary systemic change. While recommendation #10 urges the “overhaul of outdated employment, insurance, food, and housing policies,” it doesn’t recognize that female creative workers, like their sisters in the rest of the workforce, simply cannot return to work without updated childcare and paid leave policies. Any national policies to “activate the economy” cannot ignore that women in the U.S. bear asymmetric burdens of home, elder, and childcare, which have caused them to leave the workforce at four times the rate of men. As has been reported widely, of the net 140,000 jobs lost in December of 2020, all were held by women.

A recent survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that, across race and ethnicity, 69% of women surveyed support paid sick time and time away from work to have a child, recover from serious health conditions, or to care for a family member.

For many families in the U.S., paid family leave and childcare make the difference between their place above or below the poverty line. Two in four mothers and three in four Black mothers are breadwinners for their family, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Senate Bill S.248 – Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT-03), would ensure that all workers, no matter the size of their employer or if they are part-time or self-employed, will have access to paid leave.

“Nearly a year into a devastating pandemic and recession, we need the FAMILY Act more than ever,” said Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) in a press release introducing Senate Bill S.248. “92 percent of workers who earn low wages—who are disproportionately Black and Brown—have no access to paid family leave. When a baby is born or illness strikes, families are forced to make impossible choices between their economic security and the needs of their loved ones.”

The recent decision to furlough “workers whose jobs require them to work onsite, or whose work can effectively be deferred for the period we will be closed” at The Philadelphia Museum of Art sounds fairly neutral … until you realize that the jobs on the chopping block (such as security guards or cleaning staff) are held primarily by women of color, often making minimum wage, with no job security or health benefits. The same is true in other female-dominated professions—where leadership, better pay, and job security all skew male—such as service, K-12 education, and nursing. In many cases, this uniquely American approach makes it impossible for women to continue in their careers in these female-dominated professions, including the arts, at all.

The corollary is that the pool of candidates for leadership deemed competent by Boards of Directors radically favors men, and often men without parental responsibilities. This phenomenon is not confined to the arts, by the way, and is now threatening to return throughout the broader workforce.

“Everything we worked for, that has taken 25 years, could be lost in a year,” said UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia in regard to the generation’s worth of setbacks women are facing due to the pandemic.

There are direct, negative consequences to viewing a child-free workplace or childless status as synonymous with leadership ability and readiness. Any first-year economics student can tell you that these costs don’t simply disappear if mothers are made to bear them on their own. Just because a dance or opera company says they “cannot afford” parental leave or childcare does not mean there isn’t an impact. That impact is felt in both obvious and subtle ways, and particularly in the inevitable mono-culture of upper leadership.

In summary: we can imagine no better way to ensure the artistic and economic stagnation of the arts, post-pandemic, than the continuing systemic denial of creative and leadership opportunities to women, ongoing erasure of their past contributions to the field, a continuing gender pay gap, and overall refusal to acknowledge the overwhelming impact of unequal elder and childcare burdens.

Dance Data Project® offers these recommendations and calls to action for rebuilding and reinventing the arts industry in the U.S. The requests are nothing new, as advocates have backed similar policy reform in the arts for over 50 years, but here are six ideas to revisit as we move forward:

  1. Advocate for federally mandated paid leave by formally attaching your name and/or organization’s name to the FAMILY Act.
  2. Provide paid leave to both parents, with written policies that encourage men to use all of their leave (72% of men who take leave at all in the U.S. return to work within two weeks or less after the birth or adoption of their children).
  3. Recognize that women are overrepresented demographically in the arts; therefore, employee policies should include acknowledgement of working mothers with provision of comfortable and accessible lactation and nursing facilities, scheduled flexibility where possible, and other motherhood-friendly accommodations.
  4. Acknowledge that many female arts workers are at the bottom, least secure tiers, and advance policies that work to close the gig worker salary gap, encourage pay transparency, and promote gender equity among arts leadership.
  5. Include questions related to the unique barriers facing women on arts recovery surveys. For example:

    • accessibility to childcare and/or impact on day care centers closing
    • homeschooling burdens
    • amount of time spent on housework (vs. spouse)
    • elder care responsibilities including visitation, cooking, driving to appointments, or searching for vaccine appointments
  6. Pledge that fellowships, scholarships, artist-in-residence, and commission awards include coverage of childcare costs and stated policy, especially those that call for “seasoned artists” with longer term careers.