The entertainment industry likes to think it is a champion of diversity and inclusivity, jumping to call out those who are homophobic, racista, ableist and sexist. But as a queer black female actor I know all too well how far we still have to go. There is another prejudice infesting the industry, one that is kept in the shadows: pregnancy discrimination.
I was recently offered a TV role unlike any I’d been given the opportunity to play before and I was thrilled. I was pregnant when cast, but I knew this wouldn’t pose any challenges for the production: the character spent most of the story sitting down, the setting meant clothing could cover my bump, or the character could be pregnant, especially as all the action took place over a matter of days.
It was the perfect gig to get before the baby arrived. The fee would be a welcome boost, given that I’d be unable to work for a while and would have to take on all the extra costs a little one brings. My agent said we should inform them that I was pregnant, which I was nervous about, but we agreed that it would be the right thing to do. The next day we received an email from production with lines quoted from their insurers saying that the premium for a pregnant artist would be so high that the company would not cover it, and therefore they would be dropping me from the job.
I was upset and angry. The insurance company never took into consideration the lack of risk involved in the part or my good health. It felt as if I had been cast aside as a pregnant person as a general rule, rather than the specifics of my situation being taken into account. Society depends on pregnant people to bring the next generation into the world, yet I felt so quickly expendable.
I’ve been in this business for 14 años: I know how often actors are made to feel insignificant, replaceable, just one in a long production line. I’ve grown a thick skin because of it – you have to survive mentally. But being kicked out before having a chance to speak, pelear, or reach a compromise hurt. I understand that the production company’s hands were tied by rules set in place by the insurers, but a little kindness and understanding would have gone a long way. The impersonal letter made me feel as if I was treated as a pregnant problem, not as an individual.
I went to the actors’ union, Equity, with the support of my amazing agent, to see where I stood on this. But the response was that the production company did everything right (legally) and so there was not a lot I could do. I’m not the only actor this has happened to: it was recently informó that at least five women in the past two to three years have claimed that they were hired to work on shows, only to be dropped after disclosing that they were pregnant. They’re only the ones who came forward publicly; I know of many more.
For those of us who have experienced this discrimination, the solutions are few. The last thing you want to do is fight a legal case while looking after a newborn and make enemies of production companies while doing it. You want to be able to work again but we all know how easy it is to be sidelined, especially if you are a woman and especially if you are black.
But I can’t stay silent. The industry can and must change. Insurance companies are exerting too much control over the casting process and directors and producers seem unable to push back against these gatekeepers.
If those at the top won’t even consider letting someone who is pregnant do their job, our industry will keep losing artists; talent bruised, battered and gone for ever.