Conferences are key networking opportunities for scientists to get hired and advance their careers – but moms often miss out due to cost and childcare issues.
Parent-friendly policies are elementary, really.
You wouldn’t dream of hosting 30,000 people at an event without ensuring there are enough bathrooms or water fountains to meet everyone’s basic biological needs. Yet many academic conferences fail to provide an adequate space for attending mothers to pump breastmilk, or to include changing tables in the men’s rooms for fathers who bring young children along.
So 45 frustrated female researchers have organized A Working Group of Mothers in Science, which published a list of practical recommendations to make academic conferences more accessible to parents this week. They include offering onsite childcare or a grant to help cover childcare costs, discounted registration for parents who can only attend part of a conference, private nursing rooms with sinks, as well as access to filtered water and bottle warmers for parents who feed with formula.
Dr. Rebecca M. Calisi of UC Davis was spurred to organized the mothers in science missive when she saw that the “lactation room” at a recent convention featured just three chairs separated by curtains; it was missing a sink to rinse out the pump and bottle parts, or a flat surface to set up the pump.
“It’s always a slap in the face,” she said. “These neurobiology and reproductive biology conferences have dozens of presentations on the importance of breastfeeding and mother-child bonding … but I’ve had to pump in bathroom stalls, or walk all the way back to my hotel room to pump, which takes up a lot of time.”
And when Dr. Calisi mentioned the scant accommodations to a couple of other mother attendees, “an older gentleman who overheard us remarked, ‘Well back in my day, women didn’t have any of those things, so thank your lucky stars that at least there’s something.’
“That really frustrated and angered me,” she said. “It was akin to saying, ‘Your paycheck isn’t as much as a man’s, and you don’t get promoted as much as men do, but you should just be thankful that you can sit at the table.’ Meanwhile, women are not only doing all of the things men are supposed to be doing in our fields, but we’re doing them while also creating life and breastfeeding.”
But when she vented her frustration on Facebook, the conference organizers apologized and upgraded the lactation room to feature more comfortable lounge chairs and tables by the next day. “It’s not necessarily that conference organizers don’t care, or that they are not supportive of women — I realized that they just didn’t know what to do,” said Dr. Calisi.
So she reached out to 45 other mothers in various scientific fields across the country, and they all input their ideas into a Google doc that eventually became the “How to tackle the childcare–conference conundrum” guidelines.
Attending conferences is key to advancing in the sciences and in academic fields, especially earlier in a researcher’s career. Conferences provide face-to-face interactions with potential employers, mentors and fellow collaborators. They are also a platform for scientists to present their research and attract funding agencies.
“Going to a conference could be the difference between getting invited to a job interview or not,” co-author Dr. Patricia C. Lopes of Chapman University told Moneyish. “You are much more likely to be interviewed for a job if someone on the search committee for that position has met you in person or seen you present your work. When I was applying for faculty positions, I would say, ‘By the way, I will be at this upcoming conference, and it would be lovely to meet and talk more about the position.’ And I did meet people that were in the position to employee me through that conference, and I got invited to job interviews.”
Yet parent researchers who are also primary caregivers to young children (and these are usually women) are deterred from participating in conferences due to the prohibitive costs to fly another caregiver out to take care of the little one while they’re at work, or to pay someone to care for the child at home. Breastfeeding and diaper changing between lectures and presentations can also be a challenge when there aren’t places to take care of those basic needs.
“These conferences are often so unprepared to accommodate people with babies,” said Dr. Lopes, who hasn’t attended a conference since her baby was born 15 months ago because flying out her husband and her child with her to national and international conferences would be hundreds of dollars.
“While I can pay for my own transportation for conferences from grants, I can’t pay for my husband using a grant. And I would be putting a burden on my partner to skip work and babysit while I attended the conference,” she said. “Financial support or childcare onsite would make a huge difference. And we pay fees to attend these conferences, so it could just be a matter of increasing those fees a little bit to get enough money to allocate for these types of accommodations for parents.”
And the period when a young scientific investigator needs to hustle to publish and present their research overlaps with the best biological window for women to bear children.
“This time in which we really need to focus on our careers to survive in this incredibly great and competitive environment, a time when our job is to make discoveries to give ourselves the best chance to advance in our fields, comes at the same time when many of us wish to start families,” said Dr. Calisi, who had her two children during her postdoctoral period and the beginning of her faculty position at UC Davis. “It’s a career conundrum, not just in academia, but in society in general.”
And research has shown that women in academics suffer a “baby penalty,” where they earn less for each child that they have, ultimately retiring at salaries 29% lower than their male colleagues. Men in academics, on the other hand, see a boost in their careers when they start a family. About 70% of tenured faculty are men married with children, compared with 44% of women. And the women who do get tenure are more likely to be unmarried or divorced, or have fewer children, than their male counterparts.
“I would probably be further in my career and farther along in my research by now if I didn’t have children, because I could work 60 or 70 hours a week … but my work wouldn’t be as deep or as meaningful, because after having children, I attack my work in a different way, and I manage my lab in a more supportive and inclusive way,” said Dr. Calisi.
Here are the recommendations from A Working Group of Mothers in Science that could help level the academic playing field:
- Supporting mothers’ attendance by offering financial support for individually arranged childcare at smaller conferences or onsite childcare for larger conferences. This would allow for frequent check-ins from parents and support breastfeeding.
- Redistribute the ways in which scientific society funds are used, or modestly increase registration and/or exhibitor fees to support on-site childcare.
- Offer discounted registration to parents who can attend only a portion of the conference.
- Offer grants to fund travel and housing for caregivers.
- Include family-friendly policies, events, resources and day schedules, like welcoming children to attend society lunches, so parents can feed their kids without removing themselves from conference social activities and networking opportunities.
- Offer early-registrant parents flexibility in selecting the day and time they give their presentation.
- Allow parents to share their nursing requirements, such as a private nursing room with a sink, on conference registration forms in order to better anticipate needs.
- List resources in forms that extend beyond nursing, such as access to filtered water and bottle warmers, as well as baby changing facilities in all restrooms. Providing lockers or cubbies to store pumps within or near the lactation rooms and adequate refrigeration to store expressed milk would also literally be a weight off parents’ shoulders.
- Conferences should allow babywearing in the conference halls, seminar rooms, and poster areas.
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