Holding institutions to account: supporting academic-carers’ conference attendance

In this post the editors of Conference Inference (Emily Henderson and James Burford) consider institutional responses to support academic-carers’ conference attendance.


Over the nearly two years we have edited Conference Inference, we have approached the question of conferencing in relation to care and caring responsibilities from multiple angles. The blog has an ongoing project to promote discussions around the exclusionary nature of conferences – and some of the ways in which conferences can be more thoughtful and inclusionary in their practices. Care has formed a special strand of these discussions, in part because there seems to be a growing trend of recognising the inequalities in the academic profession that are perpetuated by inaccessible conferences.

So far, Conference Inference has published rich and thought-provoking pieces on care, from Genine Hook’s reflections on the exclusions experienced by sole parent postgraduates, to Ali Black’s piece on how to care for each other in academic gatherings, to Briony Lipton’s piece on bringing her baby to a conference, to Emily Henderson’s pieces on her ‘In Two Places at Once’ research project.

One area of this topic that we have not yet explored concerns the institutional role in supporting academics who are caregivers to attend conferences. The onus is often placed on a) individuals and b) conference organisers to make conferences more care-friendly. The latter is a really important issue, and more conference organisers could certainly be more care-friendly (see recommendations for this).

However higher education institutions often escape unscathed from these conversations. This is in part because conferences are often constructed as ‘optional’, part of an individual academic’s personal development, and a whiff of the conference fatigue discourse enters into the question of whether conferences are worth supporting from an institutional perspective. But conference attendance is an institutional matter. Even if the arguments about return on investment and the benefits of conference attendance go unheard in an institutional context, it is an undeniable fact that conferences are mentioned in most promotions criteria, not to mention selection criteria for eg. postdoctoral fellowships. By placing value on conferences within official criteria like these, institutions arguably claim at least some responsibility for supporting conference attendance for their employees.

However many challenges arise if we hold institutions to account in this way. As the ‘In Two Places at Once’ project found, there are numerous barriers to supporting academic-carers’ conference attendance. Issues arise of policy knowledge and policy implementation, particularly when heads of department are key figures in this regard and yet frequent role changes in departments mean that the intricacies of policies are not known – furthermore, if heads of department do not support a care agenda, this can become a case of department culture which is harder to combat. There are also issues regarding the use of funds, in relation to equity between staff (should caregivers be entitled to more funding than others, eg. to pay for an extra travel ticket?) and in relation to financial regulations (can care services be claimed on expenses – if so, what counts as a care service?). However, these challenges should not mark the end of the conversation, as institutions can put their minds to improving support for academics in this regard.

One support mechanism that institutions can put in place is a travel grant or bursary for academics who are caregivers. Both of our universities (Warwick, UK; La Trobe, Australia) have a scheme of this kind. Warwick has been operating this fund for some years now, and the scheme covers care costs and facilitates conference attendance for academics with caring responsibilities. However, in this post we focus on exploring La Trobe’s Carers Travel Support Fund.

Launching a Carers Travel Support Fund: the La Trobe Experience

Jamie first learned of La Trobe caregiver’s support initiative at the Gender Equality at Latrobe University: Future Directions symposium in July 2018. Following this, on the 17th of August 2018, he conducted an interview with Tasha Weir (Research Gender Equity Project Officer) and Faiza Muhammad Fauzi (Senior Advisor – Office of the DVC Research) about the La Trobe University Carer’s Travel Support Fund. In the second part of the post, we share an edited version of their insights in order to contribute the institutional perspective to this debate.

The Carers Travel Support Fund was developed in response to research conducted for the University’s involvement in SAGE Athena SWAN. In focus groups and individual interviews, academics with caring responsibilities spoke of not having attended a conference, conducted overseas or interstate research, or undertaken extensive fieldwork since having children. Others spoke of the difficulty of attending weekend or out of hour’s events when there is often no available childcare.

The fund is centrally administered by the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), with the aim to support researchers who are primary carers with the cost of childcare or other care costs while presenting at a national or international conference or undertaking research interstate or abroad, when no other regular care is available. The fund can be used to support the cost of arranging alternative care while the staff member is carrying out these activities. For example, applicants may require additional childcare in Australia to allow them to travel, or may use the funds to provide childcare at the conference venue, including providing funds for an alternate carer to travel with the staff member, and/or the cost of the child’s travel if there is a need for the child to travel with the staff member.

In academia, there is often a divide between public and private life. We need to break through the reluctance to discuss the realities of caring responsibilities and be prepared to challenge the idea of the ‘unencumbered academic’ with a linear, uninterrupted career. People of all genders need to feel empowered to have these uncomfortable conversations, for instance about other ways of working (part-time flexibly or job sharing).

SAGE Athena SWAN is ultimately about identifying gendered barriers and putting in place equity measures until such time as they are no longer required. The Carers Travel Support fund is one such equity measure, but we are also looking at other ways University resources are spent.

We recognize that treating everyone ‘equally’ is not always ‘fair’. As an institution, we have a responsibility to ensure all our staff have equal access to resources and opportunities, and this means redressing the legacies of systems that have unfairly disadvantaged women, trans and gender diverse individuals over many years.

While many of the people who apply for the fund are women, it is open to people of all genders who have caring responsibilities and includes all kinds of caring (children, elderly parents, relatives). The limit of the fund is $500 for in-state, $1000 for inter-state, and $2500 for international travel. While at this point the fund only covers researchers, Tasha and Faiza recognise that care responsibilities may be experienced by all staff, and view this as a future need.

One challenge of establishing this scheme has been ensuring that staff know about the opportunity. At the moment there is an advertisement on the intranet and in the staff newsletter, but mostly access to the fund relies on word of mouth. We wonder what role champions in leadership positions play to make sure people are aware of it? A second challenge is that, because the cost is for a staff member’s dependent, it is taxable. It’s really frustrating that you can’t claim childcare as a work-related expense.

For the future, the fund is planned to continue in its current form as it is included in the gender equality blueprint. However, there is a need for a further focus on support for conferences and travel opportunities for staff who are not researchers/academics.

At Conference Inference, we acknowledge that initiatives such as these are small steps in improving institutional support for more inclusive conferences, but we also consider that these are extremely important steps in carving out space for more supportive policies. The ‘In Two Places at Once’ project produced recommendations for higher education institutions in this regard, which can be downloaded here.

James Burford @jiaburford and Emily F Henderson @EmilyFrascatore are the editors of the Conference Inference blog.


Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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