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Academia & Parenthood: Advocating for Child-friendly Conferences

top image from PNAS: With childcare accommodations seemingly elusive, many parents make a calculated decision to forego conference attendance and suffer the career consequences. Image courtesy of Dave Cutler (artist).

I’m currently navigating the stormy and under-charted academic conference-childcare seas. My daughter hasn’t attended an academic conference since she was an infant. During our parental leave, my (non-academic) partner and I banged out two trips to Maine for regional meetings, but in the two and half years since, I’ve been traveling, presenting, and poster-ing solo. In that first year, I schlepped my breast pump across conference centers and through TSA lines. Now, I leave room in my bag for tiny t-shirts and kid-friendly swag. Next month, my kid will come with me to my MS alma mater for a conference in my old grad school home.


The “childcare-conference conundrum” — how can parents balance conference attendance and childcare and how can conferences accommodate these (mostly) early-career scientist-parents— is widespread in academia, but these discussions seemed to be relegated to a whisper network of moms-mentoring-moms. When I first searched for advice on conferencing-with-a-baby/parenting-with-a-career, it was mostly through informal channels. There were conversations at women-in-science events and panels, tips traded through twitter, and hard-won insights passed from lab to lab.

This month, PNAS published Rebecca M. Calisi and a Working Group of Mothers in Science’s ‘How to tackle the childcare-conference conundrum.’ In this piece, Calisi and coauthors clearly define the challenges of parenting while pursuing a career in science and outline four concrete suggestions for conferences to better support academic parents. They write:

“Using [these] guidelines also helps normalize pregnancy, lactation, and the childcare needs of working parents, especially working mothers. These guidelines may seem burdensome to conference organizers; however, they entail considerations that parents take into account every day while maintaining an active career.”

This Working Group of Mothers in Science opinion piece is simple, clear, and groundbreaking. This is a departure from the model of moms-mentoring-moms — it is an outward-facing, policy-ready call to action for institutional changes. The moms-mentoring-moms model can be great for individuals, but it does not address the structural inequalities facing parents in academia. Instead, the forty-five co-authors write: “These recommendations are directed toward research societies and conference organizers who are willing to take a leadership role in creating solutions, either incrementally or on a large scale.”

Figure from PNAS — By promoting a parent-friendly environment and culture, professional societies would send a strong message of support and inclusiveness that could help retain parents in their academic fields. Image courtesy of Dave Cutler (artist).

The recommendations are packaged in a memorable acronym, CARE: Childcare, Accommodate families, Resources, and Establish social networks. Each recommendation is outlined in detail, from the physiological needs behind specific accommodations (for example, how baby-wearing, on-site childcare, and lactation rooms to support breastfeeding parents) to a range of possible policies and actions for conference organizers to adopt. In my own experience, this year I’m attending an intimate one-day science symposium at my field site, medium-sized weekend regional meetings, and a huge week-long international conference. There are CARE recommendations that could improve every one of these conferences.

I plan to share this PNAS paper with the conference organizers next month when I arrive to give two talks with my two year old in tow. Part of the appeal of bringing my child to this conference is the opportunity to return to my old grad school and share my whole self — the scientist & the parent that I’ve become — with my old colleagues, grad cohort, and mentors. Earlier this month, I chatted with PLoS Ecology Community Editor Jeff Atkins on his podcast Major Revisions. We talked about academic parenthood, kid field assistants, and my dramatic balance (see-saw?) of family and career as a postdoc. I spent a lot of the last year as an absent academic parent while I traveled for research, training, conferences, and longs stay at my “home” institution, a university that’s actually a four-hour drive from my “home” home. Throughout this stretch, I’ve received amazing moms-mentoring-moms mentorship, wonderful childcare and co-parenting, and enthusiastic support from all professional corners. A combination of luck and privilege has buoyed my scientist-parenthood journey. What Calisi’s CARE recommendations do is provide this kind of support with equity and inclusiveness to all parents at academic conferences. What I need — what my peers in the early-career parenthood cohort, and the grad students coming up behind us need — is not more stories about having-it-all, work-life balance anecdotes, or advice on how individuals can adjust to parenthood in academia. We need the CARE recommendations, we need institutional support, and we need these to continue to be published in high-impact journals in our field like PNAS.


Left: In December 2017 I tweeted my frustration at reading another working-life personal-anecdote essay on parenthood in a high profile science journal. I’ve been waiting for something like Calisi’s PNAS paper! Right: I’m living my best absent academic parent life.

Finally, I should disclose that I’m writing about ‘How to tackle the childcare-conference conundrum’ while lounging in my hotel room 1300 miles away from my kid. I’m visiting the National Lacustrine Core Facility with samples I cored from my ponds in Maine. My kid is old enough to FaceTime, my breast pump is gathering dust in storage, traveling is much easier on both of us at this point, and I am determined to enjoy it. For me, enjoying the travel means immersing myself in college basketball from my hotel bed, and uninterrupted evening manuscript revisions that run right through toddler bedtime. One of the benefits of the support system outlined in ‘How to tackle the childcare-conference conundrum’ is the ability to decide to travel without children. This option is often not a choice but a necessity, and if I had waited until it was easy to travel without my child, I would have missed out on at least a year and a half of research, training, and conference opportunities. My cushy visiting-researcher-in-a-hotel-life now is possible (and mommy-guilt-free) because people like a Working Group of Mothers in Science have advocated and worked to shift the culture of academia. Now, we have the CARE roadmap to shift the policies and culture at our conferences. So, with gratitude and nine uninterrupted hours of sleep, I salute the amazing work of Calisi and a Working Group of Mothers in Science!


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