Institute for Screen Industries Research

Locked Down and Locked Out

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mothers working in the UK television industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated government lockdowns have been nothing short of a disaster for mothers working in the UK television sector.

Being a mother in television has always been accompanied by enormous difficulties related to the nature of the working practices and cultures that have become prevalent in the UK television. The COVID-19 pandemic has shattered the already fragile and precarious networks of support upon which mothers relied to enable them to manage work and caring responsibilities, up to the point where for many it has become unbearable.

Locked Down and Locked Out: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mothers working in the UK television industry represents the voices of hundreds of television workers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The research was led by the Institute for Screen Industries Research in collaboration with sector organisations SMTJ and Telly Mums Network, and with the support of BECTU, which represents 40,000 creative industry workers in the UK.

The report throws a spotlight on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the careers, finances and mental health of mothers working in unscripted UK television and makes a series of recommendations for broadcasters, commissioners, regulators, and policymakers.

More than 500 mothers working in unscripted TV entertainment, documentary, sport, news and current affairs, reality TV, studio quiz shows and online or branded content production took part in the survey. They included women working in programme development and editorial, craft and technical departments, production, post-production, talent management, HR and studio-based staff.

Respondents were asked about changes to their work patterns, home-schooling responsibilities, the sharing of childcare and their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing during the pandemic. Follow-up interviews were carried out with a demographically diverse sample of women who had had a range of pandemic experiences. The findings reveal multiple impacts on their lives, including:

  • Nearly half (49 percent) of survey respondents said they had been unable to accept work due to childcare related issues. Over 55 percent had been part of a production that was either cancelled or postponed and 54 percent said they had not been able to find enough work. Of the 523 people who completed our survey, 29 said they had been made redundant and 61 said they had been let go early from a contract.
  • During the pandemic many mothers in TV worked flexibly, often having to manage already gruelling workloads with increased childcare and housework. The continued significance of gendered expectations around childcare combined with a ‘lack of care’ culture within the industry, made this intolerable.
  • Nearly 80 percent of the mothers in our sample said that they had been responsible for most of the home-schooling and childcare in their household, even though there was an almost 50/50 split as to who was the main earner.
  • Many mothers had to juggle work and childcare, while others were unable to work because of childcare. The first group had fewer financial worries but suffered serious consequences to their well-being and mental health. The latter group suffered more from financial hardship, something that was compounded for freelancers, single parents, those from a minoritised racial or lower socio-economic background, and disabled mothers.
  • There was a lack of understanding and accommodation from employers for additional childcare responsibilities and ongoing uncertainty caused by the fragility of the school 'bubble' system. This was felt to be the natural extension of a pre-existing lack of understanding and accommodation for caring responsibilities outside work that characterises the television industry. There is a strong sense among mothers that the industry does not care. 
  • 61 per cent of all respondents said they have seriously considered leaving the industry during the pandemic. 
  • The pandemic was difficult for all mothers working in television. However, freelance mothers and those from minoritised racial groups were particularly vulnerable, often with lack of access to furlough and difficulty finding work that would accommodate additional child caring responsibilities. Over two thirds of the mothers that responded were self-employed or freelancers (72 percent) compared to just 22 percent who were in a permanent role. 
  • Mothers felt they were treated as ‘disposable’ and often replaced by men or women without caring responsibilities, locked out from careers which have taken years to build. 
  • Working from home has played a vital role in enabling mothers to cope with the demands of additional childcare and the intensive work patterns that characterise television labour. However, while flexible work patterns can play a significant role in helping to prevent mothers from dropping out of the industry, on its own it does nothing to disrupt the gendered assumptions around work and childcare that disadvantage mothers.

The respondents’ comments bring into sharp relief the effects of the pandemic on their lives:

“The TV industry doesn’t care about freelancers, our mental well-being or our safety - we are disposable and it’s fundamentally rotten at its core.”

“Working in television has always been like balancing on a tightrope but COVID cut it in two.”

“At more than one point I considered ending my life.”

“There was no allowance made in the production schedule for the fact that I was teaching and caring for a 6-year-old while trying to run an edit from my kitchen table.”

“I am at a loss as to what to do. I am an educated, successful professional who feels like I have no options available and have been forced through a combination of factors to become a housewife. I love my career, but I fear that it will be impossible to continue unless opportunities and attitudes change towards mothers.”

The damage done to individual mothers and to the diversity of the television talent pool should be at the forefront of policy and debate about the recovery of creative sectors.

The report recommends a range of actions to mitigate the effects of disrupted working lives on mothers in TV in the future. These include changes in attitudes of partners, colleagues and friends to the gender-biased burdens that continue to be placed on mothers; management training; flexible working patterns such as job-shares, home working and flexitime; programme budgets with built-in childcare provision and funding; better compliance to production company and regulators’ obligations to the Equality Act 2010 and motherhood being included in diversity and inclusivity debates within the industry.

The Locked Down and Locked Out project has been funded by the University of Nottingham and an AHRC Arts Impact Accelerator Grant.

About the authors

  • Dr Rowan Aust is Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield and Co-Director of Share My Telly Job.
  • Professor Helen Kennedy is Professor of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Nottingham.
  • Dr Jack Newsinger is Assistant Professor in Cultural Industries at the University of Nottingham.
  • Dr Natalie Wreyford is Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London.

For more information contact:

Institute for Screen Industries Research

The University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD