Who Cares?

Following our #DiversityInEcology theme, this blog post talks about balancing childcare with a career in academia. Isabel Smallegange is an Associate Professor of population biology at the University of Amsterdam. She regularly blogs about the topics of work-life balance and gender balance from the perspective of an academic, parent and partner over on her personal site. Isabel would be curious to hear how others copes with similar situations – let us know in the comments section!

Who cares

I care. I look after my son, together with my partner. But our son needs very predictable schedules, cannot deal well with novel situations, and only feels safest with me, which means I do a lot of the day-to-day care. He is a lovely boy, and we have all found our way in family life. However, this does pose some challenges, among others, on my academic life.

For one, attending international conferences is near impossible, but this is not due to lack of support. Many ecological conferences offer on-site child care or facilitate in this, and I have heard many positive stories on on-site child care from other mothers that took their kids to a conference. However, novel situations like that, and any change from our daily routine, greatly stresses out my son. So, you might ask, why not leave him at home with another carer if you go to a conference? This, at least for now, is another impossibility. My son can’t even cope with a day at school, for example, if he knows I’m doing something other than going to work and pick him up on the way back. Here is a blog that explains this predicament really well.

So, all in all, it is not lack of support that prevents me from attending conferences. It is just the way things are, and I’ve stopped going to international conferences altogether. But I’m not the only one. I’ve now even started wondering if not attending conferences will actually affect academic work – and it won’t (at least not significantly) according to Ashleigh Griffin, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Oxford. In my case, I haven’t been to an international conference in five years, but within that time I have completed my tenure, early.

Fortunately, there are many positive sides to having an academic job when juggling such a work-life balance. The ability to work from home, and the relative control that I have over my working times are highly beneficial. It means I can actually do a job! The flexibility, however, does blur the work-life boundaries, and I rarely completely switch off (ask my partner!). Particularly when our son was small, I found the most pressing challenge the mental burden when I was preoccupied with care matters, which really hindered my ability to focus on my research and teaching.


Many academics have caring commitments, but I have never heard anyone else speak about a similar kind of struggle. I guess my situation is quite rare in that my care cannot easily be replaced by other cares or support in one form or the other. However, I do get the feeling that, in general, not many speak of the struggle of juggling care and work, as these may be seen as a personal matter addressed through private and individualized solutions. Particularly at stressful moments, I have starting wondering if leadership and management activities will actually be out of reach for me, and, in general, for those with significant caring responsibilities. So any tips on how to excel at juggling both, would be most welcome.

Marie-Pierre Moreau highlights some steps towards supporting academic carers. She first and foremost suggests that carers should gain visibility, which should bring recognition, and, ultimately, acknowledgement and a response to the complex relationships of care-giving faced by the academic carers. I totally agree with this. Of course, many universities already take steps that often go beyond statutory requirements, like flexible working hours. Another example is to plan staff meetings such that carers that leave work early, can also attend. This is standard practice in my institute, for which I am very grateful. Following conferences through Twitter is also handy, and visibility can be enhanced through social media. All in all, though, it is a complex puzzle, that requires creative solutions.

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