Juggling career and family responsibilities is a challenge many women, like La Trobe University researcher Dr Katharine McKinnon, know only too well. However, a workplace that recognises the inherent value of both roles is not such a familiar story.

By Kate O’Connor – Photography by Leon Schoots

When Dr Katharine McKinnon flew to Fiji eight years ago to conduct research on local economies and gender equity, she took along her six-month-old daughter. “So there I was with my baby, running workshops with local researchers, and women from the community would take her away, walk her around while she slept and then bring her back for breastfeeding, and it was all very fluid,” she says.
However, upon Katharine’s return home, that easy transition between her two roles immediately disappeared. “There was no more space for that kind of fluidity between home and work – between me as an academic and a researcher, and the person who’s a mother and carer for a child.
“I had to drop her off at a childcare centre and then go and be a professional. In the workplace it felt like there was no room to be that empathetic, caring, attentive person. A lot of women I speak to feel the same thing – it can be very hard to navigate these awful transitions between the separate compartments of your life.”
It’s these abrupt transitions – plus the ‘career lag’ that many women face after returning to full-time work after a long absence – that La Trobe University is actively trying to address.
As part of its commitment to the SAGE Athena SWAN accreditation program – an international scheme to improve career outcomes for women, trans and gender diverse researchers – over the last two years the University has introduced several initiatives, including flexible work arrangements and expanded breastfeeding facilities on campus.
As a mid-career researcher with a promising future, whose career was interrupted because of caring responsibilities, Katharine is a worthy recipient of another of the University’s programs in this sphere – the Tracey Banivanua Mar Fellowship.
Named after a much-esteemed member of the Department of Archaeology and History, who passed away in 2017 after a long period of illness, the Fellowship aims to reduce the impact of career breaks, or intense caring responsibilities, on research outputs.
La Trobe’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Keith Nugent, says Tracey Banivanua Mar was considered a pioneering and profoundly influential historian.
“She was also a mother of two young children and no doubt shared similar experiences with our three Fellows in having major caring responsibilities while building an academic career.”
The three-year Fellowship will assist Katharine at a time when, because of the extended break she took from full-time work to care for her three daughters, she feels ‘behind’ many of her peers.
“I finished my PhD, started my academic work and then had a family. I’ve kept working but have also been the primary carer through this time, which really curtails the number of hours I can spend working or engaging with colleagues out of hours.
“I have to compete for jobs with other people at the same career stage who have been able to produce a lot more than me. They’ve not only produced a lot more publications, and received more grants, but they’ve formed bigger networks too,” she says.
“So the Fellowship is trying to find people who are in that position in the university, who have a lot of potential and who they want to foster back into a really good research career – with the intention of helping them to step into those leadership positions further down the track.”
Although Katharine’s work as part of the Fellowship will focus on models of care in childbirth, her research in Fiji was about the ‘gendered economy’ – in particular how we, as a society, tend not to value the unpaid work typically carried out by women.
“We live in a society where the most value is placed on the work that earns money, and how much money you’re making is often a big part of that. We tend to ignore the really foundational value of all the unpaid work that is done in both the home and the workplace, and an important part of that is the care work that we do throughout all areas of our lives,” she says
“For example, in a workplace you can’t be productive if you don’t have a functioning social relationship with your colleagues; things fall apart. And that takes work. And it’s work that we don’t often put on the surface and value.”
Katharine also points out that people can’t attend paid work without the basics of life covered – including being fed, sleeping well, having clean clothes and, just as importantly, being able to maintain relationships.
“So when you sit down and trace out all the contributions that are made through these unappreciated, unacknowledged, invisible bits of labour, it’s really significant.”
For Katharine, our approach to care work and gender equality needs to shift. “We often talk about equality here as pay equity, equal opportunity, and somehow the solution to providing for that is to have childcare services available. And so it’s a real focus on a woman as an individual advancing on the same basis as a man in terms of her career,” she says.
“Rather than thinking that way, perhaps there’s a different model that we could use. So one of the things I learned in Fiji was how empowering it was for people to understand that they were making valuable contributions to their community, regardless of whether or not it involved payment.
“They spoke a lot about the importance of togetherness, of sharing, and of valuing the different work done by women and men. There needs to more men sharing in that care work that is often done by women – but also, that work needs to be valued more.”
Although Katharine’s three daughters are now 10, 8 and 5, and her current work requires less overseas travel, the caring role she plays is no less significant.
“That trip to Fiji was enlightening, not only because of the discussions we had around the value of unpaid work – but because it gave me a glimpse of a different way to do things. I didn’t have to leave my baby behind, or stop being a loving mother while I was working. Quality childcare is really important, but I wonder if we can’t do more to help women and men be good carers without giving up their careers?”