ANU archaeologist on much-needed support for carer-researchers

Dr Emilie Dotte with her two children, during a field trip to Vanuatu in 2016.

When ANU archaeologist Dr Emilie Dotte received a Humanities Travelling Fellowship from the Australian Academy of the Humanities (AAH), she was delighted. She would use the grant to support her field trip to Tahiti, to advance her research as part of the Collective Biography of Archaeology in the Pacific project, led by CASS colleague Professor Matthew Spriggs.

But when Emilie decided to ask the AAH if she could use some of the funds to support the costs of bringing her four year old daughter with her, nervousness crept in.

“I didn’t want to seem like I was being over the top or being more difficult than another researcher,” Dr Dotte says.

She quoted York University women’s studies scholar Professor Andrea O’Reilly, who talks about academia as “unbounded work”, and how that conflicts with the work of mothering, which is similarly expected to be unbounded. In her 2016 book Matricentric Feminism: Theory, Activism, Practice, Andrea writes:

On the one hand, the unbounded nature of academe demands and requires unencumberedness from family-life and childrearing responsibilities and disembodiment at its core for professional and career success. And, on the other hand, ironically, mothering stipulates that 'good' mothers must be without boundaries when it comes to their maternal thinking and practice, which demands and requires at its core that good mothers are unencumbered by professional work, or at least that mothers act as if they are'.

“I was reading her book as part of being in the CASS Gender Equity Sub-committee, and found it reflected my experiences and the experiences of other mothers I'd been talking to,” Dr Dotte, who joined the sub-committee upon its establishment in 2016, says. She has also been working with NECTAR (the Network of Early Career Teachers, Academics and Researchers) at the ANU and as a University House Early Career Academic Fellow on gender equity and mentoring.

The “unbounded work” of an academic, Dr Dotte explained, ranges from maintaining a network to maintaining an awareness of new developments in your research area – necessitating the attendance of conferences, seminars, and travelling to meet with international colleagues. In her field, archaeology, she also needs to undertake fieldwork.

“You don't really have a time of the day when you start and stop working, when you are in the process of writing a paper or researching something,” she says. 

“The more work you do, the better you can make it – and some academics work on weekends and nights. That's harder to do when you have a family, although it's good to have that too as it forces you to have a life outside of academia.”

The pressures of academic life are particularly acute for researchers who have children early in their careers – and, as the literature shows, women fare worst.

“When people look at the pipeline leak, particularly in human sciences, there are more women than men in the postgraduate levels,” Dr Dotte says. “But suddenly at the time of PhD and five years post-PhD, women disappear from academia, and they've been trying to figure out why.” 

“There are a range of causes to do with gender equity, but one that's been identified is that it's to do with family formation. The pressure of carer responsibilities plus the rhythm of academic life makes it impossible, so some women decide to drop out of academia.”

What Dr Dotte read mirrored her own experience as a mother and academic. She had her first child around the time she finished her PhD, and left academia for six months to care for her child. Afterwards, she says: “I wanted to return to academia, but the kind of job market out there makes it hard to get into after a break. So I went into a professional position, which is what a lot of people do.”

“I do love being a mother – it’s been an extremely empowering life experience,” she adds. 

“I also love being an archaeologist and academic and find my job very fulfilling. So I do not want to have to make a choice between the two, to have neither my family nor my academic career to suffer.”

Fortunately, Dr Dotte managed to return to academia and continue to help pioneer the newly established field of archaeobotany and the history of archaeology. In doing so however, she encountered the same structural barriers that affect other researchers with young children – such as seminars that happen at times that are incompatible with day care or schooling, and difficulties with taking up travel opportunities. 

Solutions might come in the form of relying on family members. But the nature of academic work being what it is,  scholars frequently relocate to chase jobs, including internationally, and usually don’t end up living close to family. There’s paying for a carer – but that can be very expensive.

“You become invisible in a way because you're always running between the domestic life responsibilities and the academic life responsibilities, and you're not arriving and leaving at the same time as others around you,” Dr Dotte states.

Her experience differed from that of her husband’s, who didn’t have the same breaks in his career and whose paternity leave wasn’t as long. He’s also a researcher, but currently more advanced in his career. She says that societal attitudes means more pressure ends up being placed on mothers rather than fathers to do caring work.

“There’s less social pressure for females if they have to leave at 3pm every day to pick up their kid or if their child is sick,” Dr Dotte says. “But when you're a male, the work environment is not as understanding. There's lots of research which talks about this.”

Social change is one thing. Structurally, the ANU at least has sought to address a major area of gender inequity, announcing on International Women’s Day in 2018 that partners would also be provided up to 26 weeks of paid parental leave. 

The University also doubled the value of its Carers' Career Development Assistance Fund (CCDAF) grants to $2,000. The grant is there to cover the costs of caring for dependents, when researchers are travelling for work.

Dr Dotte applied for one of these grants, in planning for her field trip to Tahiti. Her request to the Australian Academy of the Humanities to use some of her Humanities Travelling Fellowship funding to enable her daughter to accompany her was accepted, and the CCDAF grant helped make up the difference.

If she hadn’t secured both grants, she wouldn’t have been able to travel, or would have had to cut her travel short and not gotten as much out of her trip. 

“[Through the support of both grants], I was able to take at least my younger child with me and have her in day care and able to concentrate on my work without financial or emotional struggle,” Dr Dotte says.

While Dr Dotte only became aware of the CCDAF grant through her work on the CASS Gender Equity Sub-committee, she’s grateful that the ANU has since made the grant more available and visible. Then there are the other positive changes she’s noticed, at the ANU and other universities.

“When I was working for the sub-committee, I learned about universities that organise on-site casual day care when they are holding evening lectures,” she says. 

“In CASS, the Heritage Studies area has changed their seminar times to lunchtimes to accommodate people with carer responsibilities.”

The challenge for the Academic System today, Dr Dotte says, is to continue to adapt and find ways to allow all parents, ultimately, to find fulfilment in their dual roles. 

“[I have a message] for young women – and young men – starting their PhDs who are wondering how they're going to be able to have a nice career and a family life. I want to tell them it's possible.

“It's hard, but you have to keep trying and look out for opportunities that are being put in place because academia is changing. It's slowly adapting to the new realities of who researchers are now.”

The ANU is holding the forum Why fathers’ care matters: Enabling gender equity in care and work on 9 August. Visit the Gender Institute website for more details.