Safe Travels? Academic Caregivers and the Mobility Imperative

By Prof. Marie-Pierre Moreau and Dr Emily F. Henderson

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The expectation that individuals travel for work is prevalent in modern society. In higher education, it is a key feature of academics’ lives, whether we are travelling to take part in conferences and seminars, attend meetings, conduct fieldwork or take up a visiting position. For researchers on short-term contracts, including postdoctoral fellowships, relocating on a regular basis is a widespread occurrence. While academic mobility in itself is not a new phenomenon, it has now become a criterion of academic excellence and career progression.

For academics with caring responsibilities, this mobility imperative, in its multiple forms, often conflicts with caring commitments. This is something we have been exploring in two recent research projects: Carers and Careers (Moreau and Robertson, 2017) and In Two Places at Once (Henderson et al, 2018). Talking to academics with a broad range of backgrounds and caring responsibilities, we found that the mobility requirements associated with academia affect caregivers in multiple ways. Short-term mobility requirements such as seminars and conferences can marginalise or even exclude carers, for example when events take place at unfriendly hours or when participants are expected to stay away overnight. Longer-term mobilities, such as relocating temporarily to take up a visiting scholarship or a new position, can be out of reach for carers as it risks disturbing their care arrangements, which are often complex and operate in a delicate balance. Talking about taking up a fellowship in the US, one of the UK-based academics we interviewed explained: ‘I suppose I thought when the children get older I can start doing that again, but of course as my children have got older my mother has got older and so now I’m exactly in the same position that I can’t easily go and do research in America for more than, maybe, a week or two at the most.’ Likewise, another academic who had taken up a series of temporary positions commented: ‘It’s very unfriendly from a family perspective to be on a short-term contract, what happens at the end, it’s very difficult to set down roots and get established in that way’ (Moreau and Robertson, 2017: 11).

As a result of their dual status, carers carefully assess the benefits of being geographically mobile before committing to attending a conference or to moving to a new institution. Conferences in particular constitute an interesting focus to explore how academics with caring responsibilities negotiate mobility requirements (Moreau and Henderson, forthcoming). Conferences are perceived as both optional and also necessary for career development. The academic carers we talked to acknowledged this complexity, constructing conferences as a ‘luxury’ they could hardly afford in terms of time and effort as well as on financial terms, yet acknowledging that not complying with the mobility imperative was likely to impact on their research profile and career development. An early career academic based in Australia reflected on the difficulty of managing her caring responsibilities while also travelling because she had taken a job in a relatively remote university, so she had to travel further to reach her family for care back-up and further to attend conferences, but as she stated ‘the other kicker is that it becomes much more important to actually go to conferences because it’s such a small university that nothing happens here’. Due to their caring responsibilities, some avoided attending conferences at all, while others set strict boundaries on ‘how far was too far’ to travel. Those who attended these events often talked of the interrupted and conflicting temporalities of caring and conferencing, for example as they would need to be constantly available and take calls in case a child or a frail relative became ill or needed support. Navigating the tensions between academia and care work proved more challenging for women, who often retained the main responsibility for care work even when in full-time academic employment.

Given the importance of conferences and other forms of mobility in academic careers and the impact of the mobility imperative on carers, urgent action is needed so that the mobility imperative does not marginalise or, worse, exclude those with caring responsibilities. This requires raising awareness of academic carers and of inclusive practices, including in relation to the mobility imperative. A range of initiatives which are run by organisations and individuals to facilitate the mobility of carers, from offering ‘care bursaries’ to circulating information in advance and running events during standard working hours. While carers may sometimes benefit from policies which address their ‘specific’ needs, tackling the issues they face will not happen unless we revisit policies which assume that academics are care-free and organise more care-friendly events and mobility schemes.

Marie-Pierre Moreau is Professor in Education and Education Research Lead in the School of Education and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University, UK. Her current research focuses on academics with caring responsibilities and on gender equality in the education sector.

Emily F Henderson is an Assistant Professor in the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick. She specialises in researching gender, knowledge production and conferences. Twitter: @EmilyFrascatore

There are more stories and suggestions from parents and carers in research in our community post, which explores the response we got from the science community on this issue.

Our parents and carers reading list collates articles and videos that explore the tensions between researchers’ parental and caring responsibilities and their travel for work.

Together Science Can is a global campaign to celebrate and protect scientific collaboration.

Join the campaign and spread the word.