Kids and Conferences:
Crazy Concept or Progressive Parenting?
by Dr Joanna Griffith
Carers returning from maternity leave or other career breaks often need to rebuild their networks, refresh their knowledge and reinvigorate their enthusiasm for their career. Conference attendance is a vital part of a professional career. But caring responsibilities can make it difficult or, at the least, financially very expensive to attend meetings. In this article, we examine the possible solutions.
It’s a common enough scenario. Your eyes meet across the laboratory bench (or library corral) … coffee, turns to dinner … before you know it, wedding bells, a couple of concurrent post docs, then babies and … you’ve settled into a professional double act. Dinner conversation is scintillating …
But what about the children?
Or rather, what about the conferences and the children?
If you’ve managed to partner with someone within your own field, attending the same conference, once a shared delight, becomes an expensive logistical nightmare. For the partner sharing the majority of the caring burden and career interruption (even in these more enlightened times, this is usually a woman) conferences are a vital way of remaining in touch with the profession during a period of professional isolation and potentially career stagnation. They are also vital for networking and lead to valuable collaborations once caring responsibilities ease.
Conferences are so essential to academic life, that really, attending them is not an optional extra, it’s part of the job. And if that is the case, then why is it that in the university sector academics are so accepting of the extra financial costs conference attendance or field work entails?
If an academic has caring responsibilities at home, and conference attendance is an acknowledged job requirement, then compensation for caring responsibilities must be accounted for as part of the education leave of that academic.
The difficulty with this stance is the bias, conscious or unconscious, that might occur for universities when recruiting women ‘of a certain age’ who might have caring responsibilities.
Conversely, if carers are not given the opportunities to attend conferences, then their careers fall further and further behind. One Australian academic, who prefers to remain anonymous, was told ‘specifically that funding available for my research trip couldn’t be used for childcare!’, hardly a progressive stance.
To cope, families may choose for the primary carer (usually a woman) not to attend conferences, or only to attend local, rather than international conferences, or families may choose to take on the financial burden of caring by paying for a nanny, or using up annual leave of the non-attending partner to provide care. Is it any wonder that women leave academia, or remain as sessional or second-tier academics in comparison with their male peers?
The traditional solution for most men is to use their partner to care for their children. And arguably, women can do the same, of course, not everyone has a partner who can help with childcare. You might be a single parent, or have a partner who is unable to take on or increase childcare responsibilities even temporarily. And we shouldn’t forget those who have to care for people other than children: carers of elderly, sick or disabled adults also find it difficult to attend conferences for similar reasons to parents of young children.
So how do we solve the carer’s conference conundrum?
There’s a number of ways to do this.
Conferences Could Supply On-Site Childcare
This service is offered in the USA, with at least one conference currently offering free childcare to delegates. And for the first time, in 2017, an Australian service Crechendo is providing ten hours of on-site conference day care for 12-month-old babies to 12-year-old children at a large conference of general practitioners at a very reasonable rate ($85 per day in 2017).
This is still fairly unusual though, and no wonder, as pointed out by Christine Callen, a busy working mum of three children, one of whom has special needs. Christine works in the marketing and communication sector, and has over 20 years of event management experience. The ability to provide childcare will ‘depend on the conference venue’s own guidelines, the venue’s physical spaces, ensuring the parent remained on-site with the child, carer to child ratio, [and] child health and privacy regulations, to name just a few of the logistics to address’, states Christine.
She goes on, ‘On a more personal note, I have observed with my own conference experience over the years that conference delegates often have children in very different age groups or children with different needs who require special care. The timing and length of the conference would impact caring needs—for example, school holidays are different to school term needs. Parent delegates often have different parenting styles and what might work for one family may not work for another family. Then of course there are conference venue restrictions/guidelines and how many conference delegates would actually use the service to ensure its viability.’
It’s easy to see why conference organisers, often volunteering their time, put childcare for delegates in the too-hard basket. Despite the potential problems, given the service currently does exist in Sydney and Melbourne, it would be great if more conferences could support these types of business, helping them expand to encompass other cities that commonly host conferences. And this will only occur with demand, so make sure you ask about childcare options when booking into a conference. It’s possible your conference convenors have never been asked, or just haven’t considered it a problem. This has certainly been my own experience when enquiring about childcare options for my and my partner’s conference attendance.
Bring Your Own Childcare
These logistical difficulties mean that many parents will bring their own childcare in the form of a partner, parent, or nanny/au pair. While this can work well, it is an expensive option, and the full burden of childcare rests with the carer, making it a fairly unconvincing ‘holiday’ if you are trying to sell it that way.
Don’t forget that conferences are not usually 9 to 5: important networking happens between sessions and after 5 pm. This is particularly vital if you’ve changed positions, are on a career break, or have been absent for caring reasons. Your colleagues will want to know where you are and what you are up to: it’s not ideal to present, or simply listen during sessions, then disappear.
‘I have done this quite a lot in the past year—maybe six or seven conferences and workshops. Sometimes with mum, sometimes hubby, sometimes sister. It’s expensive and you don’t get the same networking opportunities you would if child free’, says Dr Cate Thill, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Notre Dame. Despite the difficulties, she is sanguine about the experience.
‘For me it’s worth it because I was trying to build up some research momentum after my second maternity leave. I also think that this is a period in life that will pass; I’ll get more networking time when my kids are older. For now, it’s enough to keep my hand in,’ adds Cate.
Recruit Extra Care at Home
We’ve blogged about outsourcing before. Conferences are definitely a time when drafting in or paying someone to help with caring responsibilities and household chores is definitely on the cards. Of course, this may come with a financial cost, but this is likely to be lower than bringing the kids with you. In my case, my partner has taken annual leave to allow me to attend a conference. For high-needs children, for example while breast feeding, this might not be possible.
Take the Kids with You
Taking kids to conferences might work, particularly if conferences are willing to adapt and be more family friendly. A family room, with change tables, breast feeding spaces, a kitchenette for preparing snacks and some play space could be a real boon for those attending with small children. Although at least one conference in Australia is providing a parent viewing room, it is a fairly rare event. Perhaps it’s a space that needs challenging.
‘I am seeing more and more children at conferences’, says Dr Leonora Long, a research neuroscientist studying medicine at the University of Sydney. ‘Last year at the Royal Australian College of Surgeons’ annual meeting one of the keynotes and her partner, both surgeons, brought their two school-aged kids who sat in the back of the room during sessions and then joined the crowd for morning tea. Networking can encompass family,’ says Leonora.
Leonora practices what she preaches, recently sitting as a student representative on a panel of the Australasian College of Surgeon’s with her five-week-old infant, including breastfeeding while answering questions.
‘At the forum I spoke at, everyone was welcoming. They found a space for my pram, quipped when the baby squawked during a talk and showed me the parents’ room.’
Photo credit: Dr Kate Devitt
Different families will have different needs to cover their caring responsibilities to allow conference attendance. Rather than providing a one-size-fits-all solution such as on-site childcare, perhaps the most sensible and efficient course of action is to provide financial aid in the form of grants and university funding. It’s an approach being used to provide aid in developing countries. Often people already know what will work best for their family, they just lack the cash to achieve it!
Funding should ideally be routinely being provided by universities and workplaces.
Grants for Academic Women
In the meantime, a number of grants exist to help. Some of these are listed below, including some that are workplace-specific. It is also worth checking with your institute’s human resources or scholarships department to see what might be available to you.
A grant to provide financial support for academic women who face additional childcare costs when travelling to conduct research or present a paper at a conference.
Investing in women working in the health sciences. Includes a carer’s travel scholarship for conference attendance.
Supporting more women in STEM with funding for female researchers within Queensland-based universities and other publicly funded research organisations. Carer funding can be used to cover out-of-pocket childcare or respite care costs incurred while the recipient presents at a conference or sits on a professional research committee.
Choose Maths Grants provide support for Australian female mathematical sciences students and early career researchers including support for attendance at AMSI Flagship events, partner and child travel and/or accommodation support and caring responsibility support (e.g. childcare).
Provides support for ANU staff who have a primary caring role to attend significant national or international conferences, workshops or symposia relevant to their careers.
Supplies grants to women researchers to attend scientific meetings and pay for childcare costs.
CSIRO’s Ruby Payne-Scott Award
Supplies funds in the year following returning to work after maternity leave to researchers to re-establish themselves and re-connect with the research underway in their field and related fields of research. Funds may be used to cover family travel or nanny expenses incurred during conference attendance.
Aiming to retain highly qualified women in their chosen field of astronomy, this bursary is awarded to people returning after caring leave, with preference given to women.
Funds may be used for conference and travel support including childcare and nanny support.
The University of Sydney has a number of family friendly policies including funds to defray childcare costs for conference attendance.
These grants provide funds to eligible women with primary carer responsibilities who are presenting at conferences. Funds may be used to cover the cost of carers.
This grant at the University of Melbourne provides funding that may be used to offset childcare expenses for women presenting at conferences.
This grant supports childcare arrangements to allow the recipients to participate in local and international conferences and meetings.
These awards provide additional financial support to Australian mathematicians with caring responsibilities to allow travel to conferences, or research visits to collaborators. Funds may be used to provide paid care for children or other dependent relatives. These awards are not limited to women.
The University of South Australia
In the website March 2017, a new scheme, Research Momentum during Maternity Leave for the University of South Australia, employees was announced. This scheme has funding until 2019. It was designed to help women who are on maternity leave continue with a research career. Allocation of funds is relatively flexible and would likely extend to support for childcare to allow conference attendance. Employees of the University of South Australia should contact Professor Pat Buckley for further information.
Any Other Grants?
If you find any other grants to assist women in academia or research that should be added to our list, please let us know!