What parents need to succeed in academia and how universities can help

From working hours that fit in with childcare to a place to pump, Nadia von Benzon explains how universities can support staff who are parents

Nadia von Benzon's avatar
Lancaster University
1 Mar 2022
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Recommendations for support measures universities could put in place to support working parents among their staff
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The challenges for parents working in higher education are many and they are not new. And while both men and women can and do take on primary care responsibility for children, research demonstrates that – on average – mothers continue to do the lion’s share of domestic labour and childcare, whether in a heterosexual partnership or as a single parent. It is thus mothers who are disproportionately affected by difficulties associated with being a working parent, outlined below, and who would benefit most from greater support.

Identified through my own experience, and in discussion with parent-colleagues in the Women in Academia Support Network, the key issues are:

  • availability and cost of childcare
  • disruption to childcare
  • returning to work following parental leave
  • competing demands on time

All are often addressed in applications to Athena Swan – the well-established higher education award for gender equality in the workplace. However, approaches to meeting these needs are localised and the extent to which universities as employers support staff varies considerably. These challenges are not insurmountable, so this discussion includes recommendations for how universities can better support staff with children.

1. Availability and cost of childcare

By far the most frequently cited concern among staff parents is the incongruity between the hours they were timetabled to work and the hours that childcare is available. This problem is particularly acute for staff who don’t live close to work and need to factor in commute time.

Teaching hours are often cited as problematic, as are staff or committee meetings that are timetabled outside core hours (usually 10am to 3pm). Covid has exacerbated this issue as many childcare facilities still operate on truncated timetables, while some universities have extended their working days to facilitate social distancing and rigorous campus cleaning.

The cost of childcare is particularly problematic for those working on part-time or hourly paid contracts, whose timetabled work varies week on week. Availability and cost of childcare is likely to remain a major issue for parents in the foreseeable future.

Examples of ways to support university staff with children

  • Mothers greatly value university timetabling systems that take childcare needs into consideration and schedule staff teaching accordingly.
  • Departmental guidelines requiring that meetings be timetabled in core hours are greatly valued.
  • On-site nurseries are helpful to a lot of working parents, although here it is particularly important that opening hours reflect the university timetable, in terms of mirroring the working day and providing care during vacations when staff continue to work.
  • Universities might also take greater heed of school holiday dates and, where possible, ensuring university vacations and reading weeks match school holidays.
  • Those on part-time contracts need regularity of working days to allow them to tailor their childcare.
  • Provision of on-site holiday clubs – or subsidies for outside providers using university facilities for holiday clubs – is likely to facilitate parents’ work outside school term time.

2. Disruption to childcare

Even the most reliable childcare arrangements are vulnerable to disruption without notice – your child may be ill and unable to attend or an unforeseen event, such as a broken boiler, closes the childcare service. Covid has increased the likelihood of disruption. Last-minute disruption to carefully planned childcare arrangements can be a nightmare for working parents; they don’t want to let colleagues or students down by also cancelling last minute.

Departments can support parents by:

  • Allowing unlimited sick leave to care for ill dependents.
  • Allowing paid short-term parental leave for those unable to work while caring for dependents during disruption to childcare.
  • Facilitating online working for staff who can work at home when childcare is unavailable.
  • Funding teaching cover when staff are unable to attend teaching events due to disruption to childcare.

3. Return from parental leave

While both fathers and mothers have the legal right to take parental leave in the UK, the vast majority of this leave continues to be taken by mothers. However much a mother loves her job, the return to work after the birth of a baby can be tricky. It’s unlikely that the new mother is getting a full night’s sleep, breast- or chestfeeding and baby admin may be draining, and the infant may not eagerly fall into a changed routine with a childcare provider.

How to make the transition back to work easier (as suggested by colleagues)

  • Specific funding pots at universities such as Lancaster and Reading provide a grant that those returning from parental leave can apply for, to fund equipment, research support or training that might assist them. For example, funding for research assistants for returning parents would be a huge support.
  • Some universities, such as Plymouth, allow new parents to use accrued annual leave to do a phased return to work, working part-time for an initial period.
  • Allowing returning academic staff study leave in the term after they return gives parents far more flexibility than they might have in a normal teaching timetable.
  • Parents who are breast- or chestfeeding are entitled by law to regular breaks and somewhere comfortable and secure to pump. These spaces on campus should be easy to access and close to parents’ offices to avoid wasting time with long walks to a different location, and provide refrigerated storage for pumped milk.

4. Competing demands on time

Parenting isn’t just about ensuring children are safe and fed; parenting comes with a variety of highs and lows that require time and attention beyond ensuring your child makes it to the school gate. Competitions, performances, prize-giving events or meetings with teachers to discuss your child’s progress or behaviour can’t always be fitted around a working day. Unsupportive working environments can make these parenting responsibilities feel like yet another obstacle to overcome in a busy week.

Our respondents noted that parents value a flexible working culture that allows guilt-free breaks during regular working hours that can be made up at other times.

Parenting support networks can provide an effective mechanism – through a collective voice and collective action – for facilitating improvements for working parents. Where these networks exist, universities can offer support by providing workload hours for those running and contributing to the networks, and resources to facilitate their work on campus.

Nadia von Benzon is a lecturer in human geography at Lancaster University.

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