How Reese Witherspoon, Ava DuVernay, & More Women Are Advocating for New Moms’ Rights at Work

If you ever need someone willing to go to bat for you, you can’t hope for more of a dream team in Hollywood than Greta Gerwig, Ava DuVernay and Reese Witherspoon. And right now, these heavy-hitters — along with more than 40 other female directors — are taking a swing at the Directors Guild of America on behalf of new and expectant moms. The women have co-signed a letter by documentary filmmaker Jessica Dimmock imploring the DGA to change its policies for surrounding health insurance and maternity leave… and this is important.

So, background: in order to qualify for health insurance through the DGA, filmmakers must earn $36,000 a year from DGA directing jobs in a 12-month period. According to the DGA, this should be easy enough — one hourlong episode of broadcast TV should bring in a minimum of $47,000. However, that makes no exceptions for new and expectant moms who reasonably plan to take maternity leave after giving birth. This seems to perpetuate the U.S.’s generally underwhelming attitude toward maternity leave. (As it stands, the U.S. ranks last in government-mandated paid leave for new parents among 41 nations.)

If female directors do actually want to take maternity leave — paid or otherwise — and rely on the DGA for their health insurance, taking time with their new child and/or to let their body recuperate means running the risk of losing their medical coverage.

“Here is our ask,” the letter sent to the DGA starts. “New mothers should be afforded additional time to make their yearly minimum in the year that they give birth. This provides new parents the opportunity to take the time they need to physically care for their child as well as recover and recuperate. Women will return to their work better equipped to handle the challenges of balancing parenting and work and better equipped to delve into their future projects. This should apply for adoptive parents as well.”

According to Dimmock, the letter’s author, she experienced firsthand the adverse effects the existing policy can pose. She gave birth to her daughter in September 2017, shortly after co-directing Netflix’s Flint Town. While she had to put a pin in work to recover and care for her baby girl, her partner and fellow DGA member Zackary Canepari was able to keep working. “That first year, while my partner retained his yearly minimum, I did not,” she shared. “I needed to switch to Cobra with enormous monthly fees while he retained his healthcare.”

For Dimmock, it was easy to see the disparity since her directing partner was also the father of her child. They were effectively set up the same, but only one of them suffered due to the DGA’s policies. “Failure to meet yearly minimums introduces economic and health care insecurity when it could be argued that it is needed most. And, importantly, a lack of maternity leave will continue to be an obstacle in achieving parity in the field of directing unless corrected. It is imperative that in this moment of such positive gains that we work to clear this obstacle,” she insisted.

In addition to Witherspoon, DuVernay, and Gerwig, supporters who’ve signed Dimmock’s letter include Amy Poehler, Elizabeth Banks, Eva Longoria, Kerry Washington, Rashida Jones and more.

Now, you may be thinking, Celebrities already have money. Let’s worry about regular women who can’t afford to cover their own healthcare or maternity leave. In reality, though, not all moms in Hollywood are Witherspoons or Washingtons. Many directors — especially those just starting out — still very much need an affordable healthcare option. Even Witherspoon and Washington weren’t Witherspoons and Washingtons to start with. As Witherspoon recently told The Hollywood Reporter, she was “broke” and “hustling” when she was a 22-year-old new mom.

Besides, we can support women in Hollywood fighting for parity and fight for it ourselves, too. And those Hollywood heavy-hitters who are lending their name to this DGA petition are a perfect example of how using our voices together amplifies them. Witherspoon’s new mom days are over, but she’s still fighting for the women coming after her.

This is a change that needs to be systemic. If the DGA changes its policies due to pressure from a badass group of women in Hollywood, maybe it will influence other organizations and companies to re-examine their own policies.

I would have loved to have anyone advocating for me when I was a new mom in my 20s. Working a high-pressure job as a magazine editor, I was offered no paid maternity leave — I cashed out my two weeks of paid vacation and took out a small loan to make sure we’d have everything we needed for the 6 weeks I stayed home on my own dime.

And while I, fortunately, had health coverage through my husband, who worked for the state, I too felt pressure to return to work far quicker than I was ready (I literally had my laptop out in my hospital bed hours after giving birth).

The point is, the entire conversation surrounding new parents in the U.S. could stand to be changed. So, I’m grateful for women like Dimmock and DuVernay and Witherspoon who are out there doing whatever they can to influence the narrative.

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