A few months ago, I was invited to give a talk at an elite private university in my region. It’s an extraordinary honor to present my ideas in this venue. The program that invited me is highly regarded in my discipline, and I’ve been invited to speak alongside several other esteemed scholars in my field. Plus, it’s the kind of place that Yale considers a “peer institution” – meaning that it counts, a lot, in my promotion and tenure case. For all these reasons, when I received the invitation, I put my head down on my kitchen counter and cried – tears of relief that all the networking I’ve been doing is paying off, and tears of joy at the chance to learn and contribute in this context. I accepted the invitation enthusiastically within moments of receiving it.
The invitation promised a small honorarium, one night’s hotel stay, and a modest stipend to cover travel expenses. When the staff person coordinating these arrangements contacted me to ask if I would need the hotel (since this institution is less than two hours away by car), I replied that I did not. I then explained my situation: that I’m a single parent and need to hire a babysitter in order to make the trip, which is also why I’m returning home the same night and don’t need the hotel. I told her I anticipated paying about eighty dollars to my son’s regular caregiver, and asked if the money allocated toward my hotel could be applied toward my honorarium/travel costs, in order to help offset my babysitting expense. I reasoned that the overall amount was approximately the same, and that a free hotel night didn’t mean much if it meant that I had to find and pay for an overnight babysitter – always very costly.
The staff person responded that, in order to be fair to everyone, it would not be possible to cover my childcare costs. She provided contact information for institutional childcare near her university (I would still have to pay for it). She then reminded me of the allowance for travel costs, and suggested perhaps I could use some of that money to pay the babysitter.
I admit: I was annoyed. I didn’t understand her reference to “fairness” to other participants; I couldn’t see how anyone else would be affected by simply moving the money already allocated to my travel into a different category. And the suggestion that I use my travel allowance to pay the babysitter simply meant that I’d then be paying my travel expenses out of pocket. Either way, I’d be taking the hit. In effect, I’d be paid less than the other participants – also not fair.
After mulling it over for some time and talking with a few friends, I decided not to set aside my annoyance, as I am wont to do. Earlier that week, I’d read Audre Lorde’s classic essay, “The Uses of Anger,” in which Lorde identities anger as a clarifying source of insight that, when translated assertively to connect with someone across difference and hierarchy, can be used to put pressure on unjust systems. Inspired by Lorde and the ways my students had discussed her ideas in class, I wrote back to the staff person, explained the logic behind my proposal as I saw it, and asked for clarification of the obstacle. I also asked whether it would make sense to bring in her boss. I used what I hope was an assertive, not angry or confrontational tone. The staff person responded with a much lengthier email in which she reiterated her position and explained the policies of the host university:
“We must maintain fairness to all participants, by allowing everyone the opportunity to the same reimbursable travel costs. That is to say, if we allowed this in your case, there could inevitably be other participants that may also have childcare costs associated with their stay and then the question would arise for them as well. As you might imagine, it could become a bit of a hairy situation particularly if someone needs both a hotel and child care services.”
By “hairy situation,” of course, she meant a more expensive one. Gods forbid other speakers might also have children! And even worse, that someone might need both childcare and a hotel! I suppose those costs would be beyond what this very elite, very wealthy university wanted to cover.
She then went on to cite the university’s travel possibility, which specifically bans reimbursement of childcare costs and defines legitimate travel expenses for business purposes: hotel and transportation, yes; childcare, no. Think about what that means: at some point, some person or some committee got together and decided that childcare doesn’t count as a legitimate business expense, and/or was costing the institution too much. Which means the issue of childcare came up before. Which means: people needed institutional support in this area, and they didn’t get it. Their (our) need hasn’t gone away; if anything, it has amplified. The institution just shirked any responsibility for meeting it.
So, I’ll be paying for my childcare expenses out of pocket – again. I expected as much, though it is a serious economic burden. Eighty dollars is nothing to the institution that invited me – pocket change, really – but it’s almost a week’s worth of groceries for me. And, of course, this isn’t a one-time deal. Every month, I spend hundreds of dollars on babysitters so that I can attend dinners with job candidates, moderate discussions on new books, show support at student events. I’m glad to engage in most of these activities; I genuinely enjoy them, and they’re also crucial to my networking. But there are real financial costs, and these are business expenses. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
To be clear, I don’t blame the staff person who engaged me in this conversation. She was responsive and professional at every stage, and in the later round of emails, she identified herself as a single mother too, apologizing that she couldn’t meet my need. Nor do I think the host institution’s policy is especially egregious. Yale has similar travel policies and restrictions, and I face them every single time I need to travel with P. The problem is not one staff person or one institution, then, but rather the anti-feminist, un-family-friendly policies that our institutions have quite deliberately adopted to shift the burden onto individual academic workers, who are overwhelmingly female. It is a rare workplace indeed, whether inside or outside of academia, that sees childcare as a legitimate business expense – even though it plainly is.
This experience highlighted for me the structures of hostility to caregiving and reproductive labor that undergird the work of conferencing and giving or planning invited talks – a major part of the academic’s labor. This type of labor imposes unique and particular strains. This event, like so many others in which we engage, will occur outside of my home region and outside of my regular work hours – and thus, beyond the scope of my normal childcare arrangements. In other instances like this, I have successfully negotiated for coverage of my childcare costs, not through direct reimbursement, but by asking for a higher honorarium specifically to cover those expenses; I am always transparent about how the money will be used. So I know it is possible – when the person doing the inviting is willing, when the funding allows for it, and where there are not explicit bans on doing so.
Since this all went down, I’ve been thinking about what a more just experience of conferencing and invited talks would look like. A starting point would be to do away with aspirations to “fairness” – which in my recent experience meant “sameness” – and to instead grapple with people’s differentiated particularities in an intentional way. Consider all the other forms of difference that we regularly accommodate within these events, without a second thought. If we are planning an event and we invite one speaker who lives an hour away and another who lives across the country, we spend different (unequal) amounts on their travel. We accept this as a matter of course, even though it generates uneven costs for the institution. We need to now broaden the terrain of difference that we expect to accommodate. We don’t all have the same needs, and our labors don’t all cost the same, whether to us as individuals or to the institutions that are hosting us.
A feminist approach to conferencing, invited talks, and other such events would routinely and deliberately ask what a person needs to make their participation feasible, comfortable, and meaningful. A disabled person may need a nonstop flight; a lactating mother may need refrigeration to store her pumped breast milk; a transgender person may need an all-gender bathroom near the room where they are scheduled to speak. We cannot leave it up to people to raise these needs on their own, because many times they won’t, assuming it’s their responsibility alone or that they lack sufficient status to make the request. We don’t know – because we usually don’t ask – what work an invited speaker or job candidate had to do behind the scenes to get to the talk, what risks they’re taking, what favors they’ve had to call in. People are often going to great lengths. A feminist approach would make their differences and particular needs transparent, then reckon with them carefully and graciously — not pretend they don’t exist by writing them away as non-reimbursable (and therefore illegitimate) business expenses.