Life beyond the lab: Academics with caring responsibilities

The lives that academics live outside the lab or lecture theatre became suddenly more visible after the recent pandemic-related shift to remote working – and all the boundary-blurring and curious-toddlers-crashing-Zoom-call moments that followed.

Under pressure to deliver consistently excellent teaching, research, and publications in a competitive and often precarious professional context, many academics have opted to keep the nature of their caring responsibilities low-profile – or even hidden. This may particularly have been the case for post-holders from under-represented groups, as they focus hard on overcoming conscious and unconscious bias in order to minimise the obstacles to academic success. A not-ungrounded fear persists that an academic with caring responsibilities will be seen as less focused or committed to their work – and less like a candidate for promotion.

It doesn’t help that there’s little data collection or research on academics with caring responsibilities, and a stifling silence on the issue. The image of the career academic supported by a discreet spouse and free of any non-professional responsibility may be outmoded, but it still casts a long shadow. As a consequence, those seeking to carry out both academic and caring responsibilities can often find themselves in round after secretive round of panicked, guilty juggling. When that becomes the norm, talented people burn out, their potential is lost, and the academy is weakened.

But the fact is that – like the rest of society – academics do have caring responsibilities.

The immediate focus tends to be on the care of young, healthy children, but these responsibilities extend far wider – from the support of an elderly parent to a disabled partner or child with complex needs. The commitment can be short or long term. The often-unrecognised reality is that caring responsibilities can present with little warning at almost any time – particularly with an ageing population and widespread cuts to state-funded social care.

Under pressure to deliver consistently excellent teaching, research, and publications in a competitive and often precarious professional context, many academics have opted to keep the nature of their caring responsibilities low-profile – or even hidden.

So, as increased remote working helps to highlight the nature of people’s home life while also offering opportunities for making significant changes to working practices, what can be done to improve recognition and provision for academics with caring responsibilities?

If the HE sector is to make sustainable progress towards the twin goals of advancing human wellbeing through research and championing diversity and inclusion, the way it responds to this issue at such a pivotal point is going to be key.

Here are our suggestions:

  • Open up the conversation. Is caregiving a private or societal responsibility? What added value do academics with caring responsibilities bring to their work? From improving the data to acknowledging the challenges facing academics with caring responsibilities and celebrating their contributions – much can be done to stimulate debate and reduce stigma.
  • Develop and publicise inclusive policies that allow flexible working practices, provide carers’ leave or allowances, and promote career breaks or sabbaticals.
  • Identify and address practices that can exclude or create acute difficulties for people with caring responsibilities, such as short-notice timetable changes or a heavy emphasis on evening networking.
  • Raise awareness and train managers so employees feel empowered to have honest and positive conversations about ways to handle obstacles, appraise options and plan solutions before a crisis hits. A proactive, realistic, supportive approach here will go a long way to boost staff retention and development.
  • Support and signpost to carers’ forums or networks, counselling, and financial advice.

Researchers who took part in this ‘Who Cares?’ workshop at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment also recommended:

  • ‘ensuring that funding can adapt to support changing mobility, so that staff can use grant money to employ field researchers if they are unable to do fieldwork themselves due to caring responsibilities’
  • ‘valuing slow scholarship – that is, research that may take years to complete’
  • ‘find[ing] sponsors or mentors to help [those with caring responsibilities to] maintain ambition and confidence’.

Finally, it’s worth remembering how sought-after the skills gained by academics with caring responsibilities can be. After months or years spent developing qualities as valuable as empathy, resilience, flexibility, and resourcefulness, their commitment to excellence in both their academic job and their caring responsibilities will stand out to any employer.

Further reading

Care-free at the top?’ Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers, Professor Marie-Pierre Moreau, School of Education and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University

Who cares? Can caring responsibilities be combined with a successful academic career? School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

Lessons from the trenches of motherhood and academe, Rebekah Layton, Director of Professional Development Programs, Office of Graduate Education, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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