Art, Gender and Work-Life Balance: finding time from work for childcare, or from childcare to work?

For Working Families’ National Work Life Week, Jonathan Ward discuss how flexible work isn’t necessarily evenly experienced by both men and women in the cultural industries.
Popular conceptions of work in cultural and creative occupations are that they tend to be biased toward those with more liberal/progressive politics. As such, one might expect them to offer places of work where there is greater gender equality, and where individuals are able to take advantage of flexible work schedules to achieve a positive work-life balance.
However, research has shown that, in the UK at least, there remains segregation of work by sex in the cultural industries. Women are concentrated in certain roles: often as ‘facilitators’ or in the co-ordination of production – with a particular concentration in PR and marketing departments. The most ‘creative’ roles – those which carry the most prestige – remain dominated by men.
As well as being marginalised in less prestigious roles, women are also disproportionately affected by the working cultures that predominate in many cultural and creative occupations. Researchers have shown that work in the cultural industries demands commitment and high levels of availability. As for many other professionals, this often means long hours and flexible working patterns that encourage work intensification rather than work-life balance.
This poses challenges for those with dependents, and so particularly affects women who remain most likely to undertake caregiving roles. This adds to other factors that serve to exclude ethnic minorities and those from working class backgrounds from cultural job markets, and the result is that this sector remains highly unrepresentative.
My own research looks at the working lives of artists. In the popular imagination, artists are bohemian individuals, working in one of the most rarefied cultural sectors, and may be viewed as avatars of cultural transgression and societal boundary pushing. Surely here work-life balance is more positively experienced and gender equality is closer to something like the ideal?
Looking specifically at how artists reconcile work and childcare, of the respondents who had children, it was the case that both men and women were active in childcare. At least partially, I found that working as an artist allowed them the flexibility to participate further in bringing up their children.
All the male respondents who had young children were clear that being an artist, and the flexibility this entails, meant they were able to be more involved in childcare. One respondent noted that working as an artist means he has the flexibility to leave the studio early should he need to help with childcare duties. For another, Steve, being able to control where works means he can be at home with his baby crawling over his knee while he works on his tablet computer which “I bought because I couldn’t get on my computer”.
Yet, as Steven points out, even with a small child he has to keep chasing work: “you’ve got the make time. It doesn’t matter how much time you’ve got unless you make the time to make the work, it just doesn’t happen. You’ve got to be a bit selfish with that as an artist, I think”.
This contrasts with women’s experiences of flexible work and childcare. The women I spoke tended to have primary responsibility for childcare, with implications on their work, both in terms of what they could earn and the autonomy with which they could undertake it.
Michelle, a respondent now in her 50s, found that when she had had young children it was difficult to continue to work as an artist as “energies and time get kind of distracted and spread thinly. I’ve often then scaled my practice to suit the time I had available”.
Nicky meanwhile has three children who are now all older and independent. Yet she continues to fulfill childcare responsibilities for her grandchildren. While she was excited about reaching an age where her own children are “all away, I can get on with what I want to do”, she feels she must take on these new childcare responsibilities. Nicky says that “it’s that quintessential women’s guilt problem, about looking after her kids, making sure they’re alright”.
Sandi, had previously worked as a media buyer in London. After having a child, however, she found “just too work intensive, you never leave the office until seven, it just wasn’t viable”.  For her, shifting to an artistic career was a way of having the time and flexibility her role couldn’t provide. However, the result is that she fits her work as an artist around childcare needs while her male partner remains in full time employment.
Overall, it may be possible to characterise male respondents as finding time from work for childcare commitments, whereas female respondents utilised flexibility to find time for work from childcare. Artists’ work, then, can reproduce kinds of gendered division of labour found elsewhere in the economy where flexible working is used and experienced differently by men and women.
This all serves to highlight the importance of changing wider social and cultural attitudes to gender, work and childcare. Having good flexible working and child-friendly policies in place is only half the battle. People need to be able to use them effectively and equitably, without fear they will damage their career or because, by mere virtue of their gender, they are expected to fulfil certain roles.
Listing image ‘Working together’ by Katiek2.