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‘Care-free at the top?’ Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers

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by Marie-Pierre Moreau

Over the years I have expressed a keen interest in the relationship between care and academia. This interest was triggered by my personal circumstances when, in 2008, as a research fellow and PhD student, I took my newborn daughter to the local university nursery and mused on the lack of research exploring the relationship between studying and parenting. What I did not know at the time was that, a decade later, I would be writing about this particular episode and that this thought would lead to the development of a range of research projects, initially focusing on student parents and, lately, on academics with a range of caring responsibilities. Earlier work I conducted with Murray Robertson on the latter group suggested that, at senior levels of the academic hierarchy, academic cultures are experienced as being particularly ‘care-free’, with one participant in particular describing care as ‘glossed over’ in senior academic cultures (Moreau and Robertson, 2017). Winning a 2017 SRHE Research Award enabled us to further explore the in/visibility and mis/recognition of care at that level of the academic hierarchy, as we embarked on the ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers project (Moreau and Robertson, 2019).

It is worth reminding here that very little is known about academics with caring responsibilities, and even less so about those carers who are in senior academic positions. So far, most research in this field has focused on ‘balancing’ motherhood and academic work and has ignored those with caring responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child. Likewise, research on those in leadership and management roles has concentrated on their academic lives, usually in isolation of their more ‘personal’ commitments. Drawing on a post-structuralist feminist perspective and a corpus of 20 semi-structured interviews with ‘senior academics’ based in England, the research team explored how members of this group experience and negotiate their hyphenated identity, as senior academics who are also carers. In the stories they told us, participants went to great length to keep care ‘at bay’, drawing on a discourse of separateness which has been a long-lasting feature of academic cultures, in Europe and beyond. Think, for example, of Descartes’ philosophical proposition ‘cogito ergo sum’ and of one of its underpinnings, ie the view that our intellect suffices to define who we are. Despite considerable cultural changes over the centuries, the association of academic excellence with White, middle-class and ‘care-free’ masculinity subsists to this day (Leathwood and Read, 2008).

Yet it is also clear that, despite these discursive attempts to keep care ‘at bay’ and embody the subject position of the ‘care-free’ academic, participants’ narratives simultaneously highlighted the entanglements of care and paid work in their lives – a slightly expected finding in a context where the family and academia have been described as ‘greedy institutions’ which demand full availability and loyalty (Coser, 1974). In particular, this discursive construction of the academic as care-free appears highly gendered, as well as classed and ‘raced’, with considerable variations across this group of academics in terms of who can occupy the positional identity of the ‘care-free’ academic. Those who were the more likely to fit the default figure of the ‘bachelor boy’ (ie a white, middle-class, heterosexual academic) were less likely to experience the tensions arising from combining care and paid work than those belonging to marginalised groups. Women academics, and women academics from black and minority ethnic backgrounds in particular, often described their experience of combining the demands of paid and care work as a ‘struggle’ – a narrative broadly absent from the stories told by their male counterparts. It is also clear that those identifying as LGBTQ were exposed to additional difficulties in their attempt to perform a senior academic and a carer identity, in the context of academic cultures which remain predominantly heteronormative. Likewise, those with responsibilities other than the parenting of a healthy, abled child were, overall, the more dissatisfied with the support received from their institution on a formal basis, and the more pessimistic about significant improvements to this support in the future. Thus, there are considerable hierarchies and intersectionalities at play in the lives of senior academic carers, with their ability to swiftly perform a senior academic identity depending on their location at the intersection of multiple discourses and relations of power.

Such inequalities are maybe best illustrated by the contrast between Jeremy’s and Rosie’s narratives (both names are pseudonyms, with limited detail provided to protect participants’ identities). Jeremy (a professor and a father) talked about feeling ‘relentlessly positive’ about his job, with academic life constructed as eminently flexible and allowing him to care for his children. Combining caring and academia was, in his own words, ‘a very natural experience’. He did not identify any negative impact from being an academic carer, nor did he think there were any senior roles which might be challenging for carers to hold:

… but is any post not attainable?  No, I don’t think that’s correct at all, I think all senior management posts are entirely compatible with having a very active family life or indeed, a very active life without a family outside work.

In contrast, Rosie (professor, caring for parents) alluded to the multifaceted dimensions of caregiving (Lynch et al, 2009) and to its significant impact on her life:

… even when professional services are involved and are supposedly responsible for the person you were caring for, I am still responsible for my mum (…) So this issue affects your day-to-day living, your life, your working life, because if there’s a problem they ring you, she’s refusing personal care, she’s locking herself in her room, she’s throwing things, she’s abusing staff, and you’re the one responsible. It all comes back to you.

Also significant was the finding that some senior positions appear more open to carers. Managerial routes were viewed as particularly hostile to this group due to expectations of full availability and to the ‘ever present’ culture they were linked with, while a research professorship route was deemed highly demanding but more flexible and thus more ‘carer-friendly’. Managerial positions that still involved academic work (ie a pro vice-chancellor or a faculty dean) were deemed the most problematic for carers, due to the multiple demands on those occupying these positions and the resulting workload (eg when individuals have significant management responsibilities and are also expected to be research active).

In the context of an ageing and feminised academic workforce (HESA, 2018), the combination of paid and care work is likely to remain a key concern for the sector for many years to come. To challenge the status quo, we need to move away from a conception of carers as ‘encumbered’ and of care as ‘getting in the way’ of performing the neoliberal dream of the care-free, globally mobile and fully available academic. Instead, care needs to be conceptualised as a part of life that calls for recognition, with the figure of the carer normalised, in senior academia as elsewhere. This requires challenging care-free academic cultures – something individualised practices cannot achieve and even help to maintain. 

Based on the findings from this project, we made the following recommendations:

Recommendation 1: There is a considerable dearth of data regarding carers, including in senior academic positions. HESA and individual institutions should consider collecting data on academic staff’s caring responsibilities in intersection with other identity markers (e.g. position, gender and ethnicity).

Recommendation 2: The sector and individual institutions should mainstream care in university policies and practices so as to ensure that senior leadership roles are compatible with caring responsibilities. While this study highlights particular issues at this level of the hierarchy (eg mobility requirements, a ‘long hours’ culture, heavy workloads), these are likely to vary across institutions and subject areas. Thus, the views of carers should be sought before reviewing extant policies and developing new ones.

Recommendation 3: Institutions need to acknowledge the diversity, intersectionality and fluidity of care. This means a ‘one fits all’ solution is unlikely to be satisfactory. Policies should be flexible enough so that they can be tailored to suit the needs of various groups of carers, particularly women and those with caring responsibilities other than parenting, whose careers and well-being are more likely to be affected by their dual roles.

While the project is now completed and the final report published, the team continues to research this area, with the recent publication of an article on individualised practices of care in academia. Engaging with HE policy-makers and practitioners, as well as with the general public, is another ongoing aspect of our work. This has involved working closely with various HE institutions and national HE bodies; producing a short film on academic caregivers; and developing two briefing papers (to be published in the summer). In doing so, the team aims to raise awareness and encourage the development of policies which recognise and value the presence and contribution of carers in academia.

SRHE member Professor Marie-Pierre Moreau, School of Education and Social Care, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Contact details: marie-pierre.moreau@anglia.ac.uk. Marie-Pierre and Murray would like to thank the SRHE for their generous support, Prof. Nicky Le Feuvre, Université de Lausanne, who acted as critical friend on this project, our colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University, and the participants to this research who shared their life stories with us.

The following policy briefings may also be of interest:

Academic Staff as Caregivers

Students as Caregivers

References

Coser, L (1974) Greedy institutions New York, Free Press

HESA (2018) Who’s working in HE?: Personal characteristics.

Available online: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he/characteristics

Leathwood, C and Read, B  (2008) Gender and the Changing Face of Higher Education: A Feminised Future? London: SRHE/Open University Press

Lynch, K and Ivancheva, M (2015) ‘Academic freedom and the commercialisation of universities: a critical ethical analysis’, Ethics in Science and Environmental Politics 15: 6-20

Lynch, K, Baker, J and Lyons, M (2009) Affective equality: Love, care and injustice Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Moreau, MP (2016) ‘Regulating the student body/ies: University policies and student parents’, British Educational Research Journal 42(5): 906-925

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2019) ‘Care-free at the top’? Exploring the experiences of senior academic staff who are caregivers London: SRHE

Moreau, MP and Robertson, M (2017) Carers and careers: Career development and access to leadership positions among academic staff with caring responsibilities London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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