A few weeks ago, I attended the annual MeCCSA conference, held at the University of Leeds. A dominant strand of the event centred around contemporary working cultures in the creative industries, with presentations on precarity, issues of diversity and equality within the sector and the psychological implications of ‘failure’ to name but a few. My own paper explored gendered discourses of care in the screen sector, looking at how care is discussed in official reports on issues of equality in the film and TV industries and thinking about inherent incompatibilities between cultural labour and care responsibilities. My interest in this topic emerged from facilitating student analysis of a survey run by Raising Films, an organisation set up to explore the (gendered) impact of parental and wider care responsibilities on the career trajectories of people working in the film and television industries.

Many of the discussions that followed the MeCCSA papers highlighted parallels between working cultures in the creative sector and academia, something I was also struck by when working with Raising Films. In this blog, I want to reflect further on care and academic labour, focusing specifically on Early Career Academics (ECAs), and considering the significance of career stage to the way in which the challenges of balancing care with precarious academic labour are experienced. This blog is indebted to previous cst blogs on working cultures in UK higher education, such as Catherine Johnson’s excellent ‘Working Ourselves to Death’ from January 2015, Karen Boyle’s thought-provoking response a month later on ‘Working Others to Death’, and Richard Hewett’s ‘Goodbye to all that’, a blog that resonated with me, reflecting upon his experiences of temporary teaching contracts.

Both the creative industries and academia are marked by an increasing casualisation of labour, potentially long hours, feast/famine patterns of working, job insecurity and resulting financial instability and heightened stress and anxiety. Within academia, this precarity is keenly felt by ECAs, many of whom are on hourly (low) paid contracts, characterised by irregular working patterns that are subject to constant change (Gill and Donaghue, 2016: 92). Many ECAs piece together work from several different institutions and, as Hewett notes in his blog, it is common not to be paid over the summer, thus creating a necessity to pick up further work in other sectors.

This situation is tough for all ECAs, but for those with care responsibilities – and typically, it is women who remain disproportionately affected by duties of care – these challenges are exacerbated (Bosanquet, 2017). The highly competitive nature of the academic sector means that ECAs are encouraged to maintain their profile at all times: publishing, applying for funding, presenting at conferences, taking on teaching. I took on hourly paid teaching work when my son was 12 weeks old because I had an intense fear of taking time out and not being able to get back in. The lack of maternity pay when on precarious contracts was another consideration. (I realise that out-with the UK system, 12 weeks is a relatively long time to be off.) While I enjoyed that period of teaching, at the same time, as Catherine Johnson notes in her blog, the common ‘doing what you love’ argument can become a justification for not having boundaries between work/life. That blurring of boundaries at an early time in my son’s life resulted in me feeling that I wasn’t really ‘present’ either at work or at home, which in turn impacted significantly on my mental health.

Inconsistent working patterns means that it is difficult to schedule consistent and affordable childcare while on precarious contracts and financial insecurity becomes even more pressing. I was only able to teach at that time because I have a supportive partner who works flexible hours and could look after our son. If I hadn’t had this set-up, I would have been effectively paying to teach because the hourly rates would rarely have covered childcare costs. This is without considering the further unpaid labour involved in career development at this stage. There are further practical challenges. For example, care responsibilities make it difficult to attend conferences and research seminars that are scheduled out-with core working hours. As these are both activities that are deemed crucial to building up your CV, establishing important networks and thus, helping attain the elusive open-ended post, it puts those with care responsibilities (again more likely to be women) at a significant disadvantage. More recently, I have noticed that some conferences are adding creches and building in childcare costs, which are welcome steps to address these inequalities, but still often few and far between.

Rosalind Gill and Ngaire Donaghue (2016) have explored the way in which recent large scale structural and institutional changes in the university sector have produced ‘a psychosocial and somatic catastrophe amongst academics that manifests in experiences of chronic stress, anxiety, exhaustion, insomnia and spiralling rates of physical and mental illness’ (2016: 91). Further, they note the way in which the ‘hidden injuries of academia’ felt by academics (and other university workers) are silenced in official university spaces or, increasingly, reframed in a way that places the onus for change on the individual worker, thereby leaving structural power relations intact (2016: 92). Gill and Donaghue are attentive to intersectionality when considering how these ‘hidden injuries’ are experienced, noting that they are ‘marked by wider patterns of inequality and injustice that relate to gender, age, class and other social divisions’ (2016: 91).

Thinking particularly about my experiences as an ECA on precarious contracts, I had an intense fear of rocking the boat and not being offered future work which made it difficult to speak out about the challenges of care. For example, I remember spending a lot of time expressing breastmilk in the toilets in between seminars because I didn’t have an office and I didn’t want to be a ‘hassle’ by asking for access to one. (And I am all too aware that I am only writing this blog now because I have an open-ended post, something Richard Hewett also comments on in his blog.) It is important to note that in all the institutions I have worked in, I have been treated well. I am confident that I would have received more support had I asked for it. But I internalised the challenges and thought if I couldn’t cope, it must be that I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t working hard enough, I wasn’t smart enough. Self-blame is a dominant and pervasive aspect of the neoliberal university, as Johnson explores in her blog. In turn, this self-blame perpetuates a silencing of the challenges of academic labour and reinforces feelings of isolation and alienation. It wasn’t until I started speaking with Raising Films that I began to realise that my experiences were not just personal problems, but much wider, structural issues.

Notably, academic labour can offer a flexibility which can be helpful when factoring in care responsibilities. Nowadays, I often juggle my workload so that I can take my sons for a couple of hours here and there through the week or finish a bit earlier to pick them up from nursery. But as an ECA on precarious contracts, this flexibility felt like a bit of a myth. I didn’t feel I could say no to any job opportunities and I was scared not to check my email for even a day in case I missed something important. I hiked up a hill just to get phone signal on our first family holiday when my son was 3 months old because I was worried that if I didn’t keep up with student emails, I’d get a bad reputation (this was during reading week when I wasn’t being paid).

This is why it is vital to be attentive to experience and career stage when exploring academic labour and care. There are small steps that we can take to address these issues. Karen Boyle recommends mentoring, for example, which I have found helpful, although we need to ensure this mentoring extends to those on precarious contracts. Boyle also recommends support for returning to work after extended periods of leave. My experience was that I didn’t take much leave at all when having kids, but even support when returning to work after short periods of leave or when starting a new job or contract would be welcome. For me, it was also hugely important to feel included in the institution in which I was working. Tiny things like being invited on staff nights out or being asked by colleagues about my research were so important to me in helping me to feel valued and challenging feelings of isolation and exploitation. There also needs to be radical changes to working cultures and to expectations that we should work all the time as both Boyle and Johnson illuminate. And, of course, there needs to be much wider structural change too in terms of how care labour is conceptualised. My partner is the primary caregiver for our children, but I’m all too aware of how unusual this is. He is regularly the only dad at playgroups, and I still get raised eyebrows when I mention that I work full time with young kids (yawn – I am aware of many other female friends in academia with small children who have had similar experiences). My partner often bemusedly finds himself celebrated by others for the tiniest act of childcare too, whereas it’s simply seen as the norm for women in the same role.

Johnson powerfully argues for the need to talk about our own personal narratives of academic labour, not in terms of over-indulgence or privileging the personal over the political, but in terms of starting to build ‘a collective language and action that can be powerful and empowering’. So this is my personal narrative on experiences of care as an ECA. I’ve agonised over this blog for too long because I’m aware that I’m privileged in many ways, especially in having a supportive partner which meant that I was able to withstand the years of precarious labour before finding some job security. Without that set-up, I wouldn’t have been able to stay in academia. I highlight this not to personalise the problem, but to point to the significant challenges for many other ECAs trying to carve out an academic career while also caring for others.

Susan Berridge is Lecturer in Film and Media and a member of the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies at the University of Stirling. She is also co-editor of the Commentary and Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies. Her research is focused on screen representations of gender, sexuality, sexual violence and age. But that’s work. The rest of the time, she hangs out with her awesome partner, her two endlessly entertaining boys and her dog, Indiana Bones. And she watches a lot of Neighbours – still can’t get over Dee and Toadie.