Blog Equitable Conferencing: Caregivers Perspectives and Prospects

Closing Thoughts on Equitable Conferencing

anonymous ethnic woman touching hand of sleeping baby on bed
by Jamie Levine Daniel and Shilpa Viswanath:

We initiated the “Equitable Conferencing: Caregivers Perspectives and Prospects” blog series in February 2020, just before COVID-19 drastically impacted academic conferencing, and most other aspects of academia, for that matter. Since the Spring 2020 semester, conferences were put on hold, canceled, or conducted online as we navigate a period of uncertainty. However, what we can be most certain of is that caregiving in academia can no longer be an afterthought. COVID-19 highlights the challenges of caretaking in academia while working from home. The disparities resulting from care responsibilities, along with potential solutions, are discussed in the rich blog contributions appearing from February – May 2020. These emerging issues centered around lack of and clarity surrounding caregiving policy, unknown caregiving cost, difference in personal experiences, and variation across academic institutions. Bloggers shared personal reflections and innovative solutions that require a significant shift in thinking and practice to address caregiving in academia.  

Dr. Gina Scutlnicu identifies three challenges: lack of funding for childcare, lack of family support, and lack of/limited access to networking/visibility opportunities (something we will all have to grapple with). Dr. Seth Meyer underlines that while there is no one universal family (adoption, for example, comes with its own unique stressors), there are some universal experiences and needs. Similarly, Sombo Muzata Chunda and Layla Alanazi highlight the (lack of) uniform policies and the undesirable choices parents have to make between caregiving on a personal level and being left behind professionally. These issues are only going to be magnified as caregivers balance increasing caregiving with decreasing resources, in the face of continued professional pressures.

Multiple contributors called for funding (either conference scholarships or university funds) that can be used for dependent care expenses. In addition, several contributors (Dr. Kendra Stewart, Dr. Elizabeth Berkowitz, Dr. Tony Carrizales, Dr. Viswanath, Hannah Lebovits) highlighted the need for visible signals and infrastructure: welcoming language, drop-in rooms, nursing stations, etc. This symbolic and active representation can help shift cultures. Dr. Heath Brown highlighted the need for planning and logistics that allow for minimal travel/time spent away. While we are not traveling these days, this advance notice is still critical to enable caregivers to participate in virtual networking opportunities.

In the introduction to this symposium, we noted that “Academic conferences, an essential component of academic life, contribute a whole new element to the parenting and caregiving challenge.” We published those words approximately three months ago. Fast-forward to today. I sit here now, in the shadow of stay-at-home orders due to Covid-19, wondering how to close this symposium. My partner and I arranged schedules so I could get in some writing – he has the morning shift with our five-year old, while I have the afternoon shift (including cooking dinner). Tomorrow, based on various meetings, we will switch. I will have the morning caregiving shift, and he will have the afternoon (including getting ready for Shabbat). Our world has narrowed to these half-day juggling acts.

Just as our day-to-day lives have changed, so too has conferencing, and the crux of academic work. We will most likely not be meeting in large gatherings anytime soon. Spring 2020 saw a slew of cancellations, summer conferences are following suit, and fall conferences seem to be increasingly inching toward virtual opportunities even as they voice aspirations of face-to-face meetings. Even as conferences move online, the caregiving challenges do not disappear. Research points out that there are over 65 million unpaid family caregivers in the United States supporting ill, disabled, or aged family members. Additionally, research undertaken by the Lancet Commission on Women and Health reveals that over 70% of global caregiving hours are provided by women and girls. A report from the World Economic Forum points out that – “When it becomes difficult to balance caregiving with work, or if the demands of work come into conflict with one’s caregiving responsibilities, carers may be forced to cut back on their working hours or take a leave of absence. This impacts their ability to equally participate in the workplace.” Most of us will not be able to meaningfully participate in multiple days of back-to-back sessions of online conference sessions. With college campuses shut and social distancing measures enforced in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 virus, faculty members with caregiving responsibilities are experiencing an amalgamation of their personal and professional lives making it harder to draw boundaries and dictate their work-life balance. This will remain an area to confront and adapt to in academic conferencing.

Even as we ponder ways to make virtual conferencing in the post-COVID-19 era equitable, we thank our contributors for sharing deeply personal narratives and recommendations to improve conventional academic conferencing for caregivers. The issues they raised and the solutions they provided are important for us to consider when conferencing virtually and when we return to face-to-face meetings. Beyond conferencing, these considerations magnify the challenges many of us are facing in our own personal and professional lives now. Thank you, to the John Jay’s Women in the Public Sector blog for giving us the space to explore these issues.

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About the authors:

Dr. Jamie Levine Daniel is an assistant professor at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. Her research focuses on the relationship between nonprofit resource acquisition and program service delivery, with particular experience interest on the relationship between earned revenue and mission.

Dr. Shilpa Viswanath is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. And, faculty affiliate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Center for South Asia. Her research and teaching engage in themes of gender and social equity; labor unions and local governments, and, are rooted in her identities of being an immigrant in the United States, a faculty woman of color and a mother. She presently serves on the executive board of American Society for Public Administration’s Section for Women in Public Administration and, on the board of the Section for International and Comparative Administration.