Are you an accidental academic parent?

Would you say “no” to a student who “wants a chat” about how their course is going? Could you? Should you? What about the colleague who wants a coffee to get your opinion on how they are being managed? If you can’t say no to these, you may have accidentally become a ‘department parent’.

What is a department parent?

Academia runs on two types of labour: intellectual and emotional. Intellectual labour includes activities like research and supervising graduate students, and is rewarded with promotion and grants. Teaching is increasingly valued as intellectual labour, though still not rewarded sufficiently. Emotional labour – the managing of our own and other’s emotions in order that others are kept safe and happy – comes largely with teaching positions and administrative roles such as programme leader, course director, and personal tutor.

If everyone were taking on emotional labour service roles equally, they could be viewed as necessary citizenship. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that women tend to disproportionately take on, or be assigned, emotional labour service roles. In so doing they become the ‘department parent’, taking excessive responsibility for students’ and colleagues’ wellbeing.

The cost of emotional labour

Some women choose to take on these roles either because they enjoy them or think that the extra work will contribute to promotion. But there can also be both conscious and unconscious bias at play on the part of those allocating roles. Certainly, students and colleagues appear to expect more “service” from female academics in both formal service roles and, more perniciously, the informal, unallocated and therefore unseen, pastoral and emotional support tasks.

The immediate price to be paid for doing more than your fair share of emotional labour can be an overwhelming workload, with research squeezed into evenings and weekends – which is unpalatable or indeed impossible for those with other commitments. Longer term, the gendered expectations can result in women getting stuck in these “parenting” roles. Whilst doing these roles well can be a route to promotion, getting stuck there tends not to be.

So, are you an ‘accidental academic parent’?

How much of the ‘stuff’ that you do day-to-day is recognised? Do you find it difficult to get research or teaching tasks done because of constant interruptions? The students in tears over an academic crisis that they “can’t talk to the lecturer about”, the colleagues who have just “had enough”. And it’s not always a crisis – arranging collections for colleagues going on maternity leave, organising birthday drinks or the end of year party often fall to female academics too.

If you are not sure just how much academic parenting you’re doing, keep a record of everything you do on the pastoral side for a week or two. Every email, phone call, and knock at the door. Then colour code the paid work that’s a part of your job and the additional work you either volunteered for or were asked to do by someone else. Which colour dominates?

Reducing academic parenting

If you recognise that you are taking on more than your fair share of emotional labour, here are a few tips for you to think about:

  1. Make sure you know the processes in place for common situations and where/how to refer people sensitively to different services across the University. You don’t have to solve every problem yourself, so make sure you know how to refer people on when appropriate.
  2. Have the phone number of key advisors to hand and use them. Don’t be afraid to have hypothetical conversations with counselling, student services or HR so that you can prepare yourself for specific situations. It will save you a lot of time if those problems come up.
  3. Put information in your email signature and your out of office response about other places people can get support – many students are simply unaware of what else is available.
  4. For allocated roles, insist on a fixed term appointment (up to three years) and a clear role description, including an estimate of the time commitment. This will help define boundaries, reduce creep and allow the roles to be included in workload models and allocation.
  5. Whilst there will be some occasions when people are in real distress that need to be dealt with immediately, practice saying “no” in different ways – for example “I can see that this is important for you, and I’d like to give it my full attention. To do that, I need to finish this piece of work first. Could we meet at time/place?”
  6. Stand up whilst talking if you want to keep the conversation short.
  7. Draw up an inclusive department-wide rota for making the tea and buying the gifts.

By Ellie Highwood

Ellie Highwood was formerly a Head of Department, Professor and Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Reading. She is now a Leadership, Career and Life Coach at

Posted in Navigating Academia.

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