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

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 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.


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

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

Available online:

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

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Organising, funding and participating in care-friendly conferences

By Emily Henderson

SRHE member Emily Henderson (Warwick) runs the ConferenceInference blog with Jamie Burford (La Trobe), offering a unique gateway to research about HE conferences. Her recent post is adapted and reblogged with permission here.

Conferences are highly exclusionary spaces for all manner of reasons. They are also vital sites for learning, knowledge production and dissemination, career development, and the formation of collaborations and partnerships for publications and research projects, sites where jobs are directly and indirectly advertised and secured, and sites of friendship, mentoring and all kinds of relationships. Conferences are recognised in research on academic careers as important sites which have a plethora of indirect benefits. Furthermore, attending, organising and being invited to speak at conferences are also expectations which are included in many promotions criteria and also in some hiring criteria (particularly for early career scholars who may not yet have a publication record). The role of conferences is often downplayed in practice and in research; amassing research and evidence on the impact of conferences on careers has resulted in a clear and irrefutable conclusion: missing out on conferences disadvantages academics in multiple regards. 

While the role of conferences continues to be downplayed – often by those for whom it is easiest to attend – there will continue to be hidden inequalities which contribute to overall inequalities in the academic profession and which cannot be addressed until fully acknowledged.

Based on some initial understanding of this problem from my doctoral work on knowledge production about gender at Women’s Studies conferences, and from personal experiences, I decided to explore the exclusionary nature of conferences – with a particular focus on caring responsibilities. The particular features of the stance taken in this project were: (i) a wide definition of care, to include partners, children, other relatives, pets, friends and kin; (ii) a focus on how care interacts with both access to conferences and participation in conferences while there.

In December 2016, I won internal funding from the University of Warwick Research Development Fund for a small-scale project on the relationship between conference participation and caring responsibilities. This was originally intended as a ‘pilot study’ for a larger project, but it touched a nerve and became much more than a pilot study – producing important findings and provoking widespread interest, including several invitations to present the research at events on inequalities and on care in the academic profession. The discussions in turn highlighted the need for further discussions – and for concrete outputs to influence the actions of those involved in organising, funding and participation in conferences. To develop the project’s trajectory further, in 2017 I applied for funding from Warwick’s Institute for Advanced Studies and embarked upon the production of a range of outputs for different audiences.

The project was assisted by Julie Mansuy in the first phase and Xuemeng Cao in the second phase, and I offer my sincere gratitude to them for their assistance with the logistics and implementation of this project. The outputs from the project, ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’, can all be downloaded or viewed from links included here (see also the events and outputs page on the project website).

The Conference Inference blog has already told parts of the story. ‘Conferences and caring responsibilities – individual delegates, multiple lives‘, explained how the project stemmed from the realisation that conferences are often designed for unencumbered delegates, and much conferences research (and indeed HE research in general) constructs an individualised academic subject who has no ties. The project explored conferences in their own right as sites which contribute to the development of knowledge, careers and collaborations, but also as a lens through which the academic profession as a whole can be viewed, given that conferences are both representative of and resistant to the institutional norms of academia (see Henderson, 2015).

Overwhelming care: reflections on recruiting for the “In Two Places at Once Research Project”‘, marked the moment where I realised that the project had touched a nerve. I was inundated with requests to participate – messages flooded in with enthusiasm and relief that someone was finally researching this – with snapshots of the complexity of academics’ lives, juggling care and academic work. The project research used a diary-interview method with 20 academics; a further 9 participants just filled in the diary. ‘Conferences and complex care constellations‘ revealed early findings, showing the range and complexity of different care constellations. This included temporary and long-term caring, shifting and dynamic care needs, hands-on and virtual caring, and a variety of different caring responsibilities.

The project has since produced a number of different outputs for different audiences, which all emerge from the study, with inflections from various discussions with colleagues, the project’s stakeholder groupreactions to the project I have received, and questions and comments from the various events at which I have presented the research.

Output 1: Recommendations briefing for conference organisers (view)

 This briefing, produced in collaboration with Leigh Walker and the Impact Services team in the Warwick Social Sciences Faculty, outlines how conference organisers can facilitate access to and participation in conferences for academics with a variety of caring responsibilities. Many considerations can be implemented at little or no cost (eg indicating evening social events in advance, or ensuring the wifi is easily accessible), but with significant impact. Care provision at a conference does not amount to providing a creche (see also Briony Lipton’s post, ‘Baby’s first conference‘). The briefing is targeted at both larger association conferences and smaller one-off events, which are often hosted in HEIs but tend to fly under the radar of institutional equalities policies.

Output 2: Recommendations postcard for Higher Education Institutions (Human Resources, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion personnel, Department Chairs) (view)

This is a short set of priorities for HEIs as a reminder that institutions expect their academics to attend conferences, but do not necessarily take responsibility for ensuring that academics are able to do so. While conferences are often portrayed as something like leisure – an optional extra (see ‘Conferences are (not) holidays‘), HEIs have a responsibility in this regard as long as academic promotions and hirings include conferences and the indirect outcomes of conferences such as publications and collaborative research projects – as well as ‘esteem’ and ‘reputation’ indicators. The postcard highlights the role of HR/EDI professionals in drawing together different relevant policies (eg relating to expenses claims, right to childcare, travel bursaries – see also the post about La Trobe’s carers’ travel fund) and the role of department chairs in being aware of and implementing policies.

Output 3: ‘Juggling Conferences and Caring Responsibilities’ short film (view)

 This short film, freely accessed on Youtube, aims to raise awareness of how conference attendance and participation are affected by the challenges of managing caring responsibilities. The film, produced by Mindsweep Media, includes reactions to ‘In Two Places at Once’ from: an EDI professional; a higher education and equity researcher; and academics with caring responsibilities (including a doctoral researcher with a young child, a dual career couple with a young child, and an academic who had cared for her elderly parents). Academics with caring responsibilities benefit from knowing that this is a shared issue and the film can be shown in training sessions and meetings for senior decision-makers.

Output 4: ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation – Final Report’ (view)

Henderson, EF, Cao, X, Mansuy, J (2018) In Two Places at Once: The Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation: Final Project Report, Coventry: Centre for Education Studies, University of Warwick. DOI: 10.31273/CES.06.2018.001

The project report is a more comprehensive but accessible resource, with recommendations for action by different parties, including EDI and HR professionals and people involved in the ATHENA Swan process or other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. The report is also an academic resource for research in the areas of care, higher education, gender and the academic profession.

Next steps

A chapter focusing on the diary data was published in Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Critical Events Studies (Routledge, 2019), with two journal articles and a conference presentation planned. I am developing a broader research agenda focusing on intersectional issues of access to and participation in conferences. Updates will be reported at Conference Inference, on Twitter (#I2PO), on the project website, or email me ( to join the project mailing list.

Follow Emily Henderson on Twitter @EmilyFrascatore.