The Conference Conundrum

As Tammy Duckworth and her infant daughter, Maile Pearl Bowlsbey, reshape thinking about motherhood in the Senate, a group of female scholars is calling for similar change at academic conferences.

Smith professor Annaliese Beery is one of a “Working Group of Mothers in Science” who joined lead author Rebecca M. Calisi, of UC Davis, on a paper that calls for scientific conferences to be more family friendly.

Here’s what Beery says about that paper, which was published in the March 5 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Why are academic conferences important?
“They’re the main way to find out about research in your area and in adjacent areas. They allow you to share research and become known as a scholar. And they’re a great opportunity to start collaborations and talk with others who are active in your field.

“Unfortunately, these things are especially critical early for postdocs and early faculty, and this overlaps with key childrearing years.”

Why is conference attendance challenging for parents?
Being away from home is hardest when children are young, and leaving them behind isn’t always an option.This poses special challenges for women, who are often the primary caregivers, and it’s particularly challenging for women who are breastfeeding.

“Right now, professors who are also parents are trying to balance two essential functions. We don’t want to have to choose to do one well and one poorly.”

How has this affected you?
“My older child came to his first academic meeting when he was five months old. I flew a friend to the conference to watch my son during the day. I pumped milk during the day and nursed my son at night. I was lucky it worked out that time, but I attended far fewer meetings when my children were very young, even missing one meeting where an award I received was announced.”

“Anything conference organizers provide makes meeting travel more possible and sends a message that changes the culture around science and parenting.”

What would help?
“As authors, we wanted to not only foreground the challenges, but also offer solutions. So we talked about things like child care, as well as family resources available at meetings. Is there a lactation room? (Nursing moms shouldn’t have to pump in the restroom.) Does the lactation room have more than one electrical outlet? Also, conference organizers can develop the schedule in a way that helps parents, who often find it difficult to find child care at night or on weekends.

“These challenges are not limited to conferences, but this seemed like a concrete place to start. The bottom line, though, is that different kinds of solutions will help make things work for different people. Options are key.”