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This is a simple, possibly simplistic story, about being a mother and having a career that’s invested in universities.

I believe the rhetoric about universities being good employers for women.

I have benefited twice from generous maternity leave provisions and a phasing-in period of part-time work before becoming full-time once again.

Those who came before me fought long and hard for parental leave entitlements. These entitlements meant the jarring transition from being a non-parent to parent was smoother.

I was a research fellow at the time I had my kids. I had an office to myself at the university with a lockable, opaque door. I could quite easily express for my babies, and kept an ice-blocked esky with me at work. It was a private and self-sustained system that turned out OK. Would I have preferred a formal room that was set aside for mothers that had all the right plumbing and a comfy chair? Of-bloody-course.

I’ve recently learned that a brand new building has been completed where I work, and there are no parenting facilities in it. NONE. Not a single, fold-down baby-change table to be had for love or money in this 11-storey flagship edifice. Nor is there a private, hygienic room for new mothers to use for feeding babies or expressing milk. Staff and students have been directed to “cross the road” or use external commercial childcare facilities for parenting facilities (see page 2 of this newsletter for an article about the situation).

I’m writing this post not to shame the institution (though how they can be proud of the options they’ve offered their staff/students is an open question), but more as a contemplation of how little progress has been made in conceptualising parents as workers and students.

I wanted to believe that universities had a better handle on these kinds of gender equity and diversity issues. To neglect these basic requirements for supporting parents – particularly new mothers who are returning to work – seems…dense. And I don’t tend to think of universities as filled with dense people.

In doing research around this issue and asking around a range of colleagues about their own workplaces and institutions, I came to realise how poor the level of knowledge and engagement with these ideas are. The situations that I heard about provided more evidence for the ways in which many institutions have lovely prose about their parental leave provisions, their embrace of a diverse student and worker body and ‘family friendliness’, and considerate return-to-work conditions, but very few realities match the rhetoric to the satisfaction of parents who are returning to work. I haven’t found one, albeit my sample is extremely small and ‘snowball-y’.

A range of excuses are brought out: older university buildings – of which there are admittedly many – can’t be ‘retro-fitted’ with facilities, space is at a premium (and parenting facilities low on the list of priorities, one assumes), it’s too expensive, there’s no demand, etc.

The dire state of parenting facilities on many university campuses speaks to the lack of mobilisation around the banners of ‘parenthood’ or ‘family-friendliness’. These are usually de rigeur considerations in large institutions these days, but are any real resources allocated to this slice of the demographic? What would the percentage of parents on campus be at Australian universities, counting academic and professional staff, as well as students?

Do children and universities not mix? Do parents have to be workers first and parents last when they set foot on campuses?