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 applied for internal funding from the University of Warwick Research Development Fund for a small-scale project on the relationship between conference participation and caring responsibilities (www.warwick.ac.uk/i2po). The project was originally intended to serve as a sort of ‘pilot study’ for a larger project, and to extend the understanding of conferences as sites of knowledge production which I had developed during my doctoral research. However the project touched a nerve and has in fact become much more than a pilot study – the project has produced important findings in its own right, and has resulted in 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.
This post is dedicated to presenting the outputs from ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation’, all of which can be downloaded or viewed from links which are included in this post (see also the events and outputs page on the project website).
The Conference Inference blog has already told parts of the story of this project
The first post, ‘Conferences and caring responsibilities – individual delegates, multiple lives‘, told the story of how the research project came about, drawing on sideline conversations during my doctoral fieldwork at Women’s Studies conferences, and anecdotal evidence from conferences I had attended – and a conference where a friend and I, both elusive about our evening plans, realised we had both brought our partners along with us for company. The project stemmed from the realisation that conferences are often designed for unencumbered delegates, and much conferences research (and indeed higher education research in general) constructs an individualised academic subject who has no ties. The project was designed to explore 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).
The second post, ‘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. When I opened participant recruitment for the project, I was inundated with requests to participate – many more than I could accept for participation in the project; messages flooded in with enthusiasm and relief about the project – that someone was finally researching this – and snapshots of the complexity of academics’ lives, juggling care and academic work. The project research used diary-interview method, where 20 academics recorded their care arrangements and communications before, during and after a conference (which could include a 1-day event on campus), and then participated in an in-depth interview where the diary was used to compare this conference with other conferences attended or missed. A further 9 participants just filled in the diary. The third post, ‘Conferences and complex care constellations‘, revealed some of the early findings from the project, 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.
‘In Two Places at Once’ – Project Outputs
The project has since produced a number of different outputs for different audiences, which reflect (i) the need for further awareness of the issue, (ii) the question of who takes responsibility for facilitating academic-carers’ access to and participation in conferences. In all of the interviews with participants, I asked participants for their thoughts on what would improve access to and participation in conferences, and these direct recommendations, along with my inferences from their interviews and diaries, form the basis for the outputs. The outputs thus all emerge from the study, with inflections from various discussions with colleagues, the project’s stakeholder group, reactions 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, which was produced in collaboration with Leigh Walker and the Impact Services team in the Warwick Social Sciences Faculty outlines ways in which conference organisers can facilitate access to and participation in conferences for academics with a variety of caring responsibilities. This briefing highlights that there are many considerations which can be implemented at little or no cost (eg. indicating evening social events in advance, ensuring the WiFi is easily accessible), but which may have a significant impact. Furthermore the briefing emphasises the fact that care provision at a conference does not amount to providing a creche (see also Briony Lipton’s post, ‘Baby’s first conference‘). Finally the briefing is both targeted at larger association conferences and also smaller one-off events, which are often hosted in higher education institutions 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 resource is a short set of priorities for higher education institutions to address, which acts as a clear reminder that higher education institutions (HEIs) 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 do 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 (approx. 9 minutes), which can be freely accessed on Youtube, is specifically designed to raise awareness of the ways in which conference attendance and participation are impacted by the challenges of managing caring responsibilities. The film, which was produced by Mindsweep Media, includes the reactions to the ‘In Two Places at Once’ from a number of key parties: 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). The film is designed to be accessed by academics with caring responsibilities who benefit from knowing that this is a shared issue – and also to be shown in training sessions and meetings where senior decision-makers can be made more aware of the issue through an accessible format.
OUTPUT 4: ‘In Two Places at Once: the Impact of Caring Responsibilities on Academics’ Conference Participation – Final Report’ (view)
Citation: Henderson, E. F., 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
Finally, there is a comprehensive project report which acts as a more comprehensive – but accessible – resource to show the extent and nature of the issue at stake, and to make recommendations for action from different parties. The report would ideally be consulted by EDI and HR professionals and people involved in eg. the ATHENA Swan process or other equality, diversity and inclusion initiatives. This report can also be used as an academic resource in research in the areas of care, higher education, gender and the academic profession, as the project makes a unique contribution to the field.
I am currently working on a number of ‘academic’ outputs from the project. A chapter focusing on the diary data has recently been published in an edited volume called Accessibility, Diversity and Inclusion in Critical Events Studies (Routledge, 2019). Two journal articles are in production and the research may be presented at a conference later in the year. I am also working on developing a broader research agenda focusing on intersectional issues of access to and participation in conferences. Updates will be reported here at Conference Inference, on Twitter (#I2PO), on the project website, or email me (email@example.com) to join the project mailing list.
If you put the outputs to use or implement any of the recommendations, please share any thoughts and outcomes with me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Project website (shareable short link): www.warwick.ac.uk/i2po
Illustrations by research illustrator Rhiannon Nichols (Dinosaurs for All)
Other Conference Inference posts on care and conferences here.
My thanks go to all at Warwick, the Stakeholder Group, and others who have supported the research, to my partner for her support with the project, and to the participants who gave their time to the project even when they were already so busy.
Emily Henderson is co-editor of Conference Inference and Tweets at @EmilyFrascatore.