Blog Equitable Conferencing: Caregivers Perspectives and Prospects

Creating Formal Representation for Parents and Caregivers at Academic Conferences

by Dr. Shilpa Viswanath:

I started my PhD program as a full-time graduate student and teaching assistant when my daughter was two years old. Reducing my experiences as a student parent to an issue of time-management would be a misappropriation of sorts. My dilemma between being ‘present’ for my child for the most part and having to forego several academic pursuits in graduate school was vexing. Since then, my daughter has grown, but, I remain as vexed as ever, wondering how to be a persevering scholar without withdrawing from my parental duties. 

Parenting with a partner or, parenting by oneself is challenging work. Added to this mix is the fact that as a first generation American immigrant, the possibility of having family or an extended family to help is nonexistent. When any access to informal childcare support is unavailable, one is wholly reliable on formal sources of childcare support. In the context of academia, these formal sources include childcare provided on-site at the university/college campus or off-site by private providers. But, what happens when part of your work occurs in a third exclusive space without access to either of these childcare infrastructures?

When I attended my very first academic conference in 2014, I remember looking around, trying to gauge the feasibility of bringing my two year old daughter to the conference; only to realize that, student parents and caregivers were not ‘formally’ or ‘visibly’ represented at the conference, leaving me wondering if bringing along a child or talking about childcare at public administration conferences was not an openly acceptable practice? As the semesters went by and I attended more conferences, I was always on the look out for other student parents like myself and often found a few engaged in private discussions around their encounters of making costly child care and travel arrangements for the conference duration. It got me thinking about why senior scholars in the field, faculty members and conference organizers were not openly embracing their roles as parents and caregivers? Why were conference attendees expected to keep their personal caregiving responsibilities isolated from conference spaces? Was being a caregiver detrimental to one’s academic image?

Being a parent and caregiver is a valid identity. Public administration conferences have recently created professional spaces in the form of conference sections, workshops, networking events, professional development opportunities for participant’s to explore their identities of race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, immigration status and educational attainment. In a similar vein, it is time for conference organizers to create spaces for attendees to explore identities as parents and caregivers. By creating these spaces, conference organizers are recognizing the important intersection between academic identities and care giving responsibilities. Encouraging formal visibility and representation of caregivers in academic conferences is the first step in creating a professional space for supporting the unique set of needs and challenges faced by caregivers in academia. 

Public Administration conferences should plan for and create bold visibility for care giver attendees, allowing them to bring their children on-site and, discuss their caregiving challenges in public forums (including conference panels/roundtables), network with other caregivers and constantly brainstorm at conference workshops. Acknowledging the caregiving identity of conference goers is a first step in creating both symbolic and active representation of student/faculty/practitioner caregivers at academic conferences. This representation is necessary to give voice to previously unspoken challenges of an underrepresented academic demographic.  

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About the author:

Dr. Shilpa Viswanath is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Dr. Viswanath studies public sector human resource management with a special focus on gender. Her work also spans the study of bureaucracy in India. She has published in Administrative Theory & Praxis and Journal of Public Administration Education. Dr. Viswanath is currently serving as Chair of Section for Women in Public Administration (SWPA) at American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and is a board member of Academic Women in Public Administration (AWPA). Before coming to John Jay in the fall of 2020, she was an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin.