A couple of weeks ago I received an email of a female colleague researcher working in France through the EWM mailing list. The open letter - that was published also on her personal website - was addressed to CIRM in Marseille and criticised their ridiculous policy regarding the presence of children at the meeting facilities (presence that would not have jeopardised the quality of the work meeting, let me specify).
This personal experience stimulated a lively discussion in the mailing list, regarding a lack that many of us feel in scientific conference organisation. Academic jobs require frequent trips or visiting periods, yet still family ties and needs are little considered. In particular, if you belong to some categories, such as breastfeeding mothers or single parents, you risk to be completely cut off from academics events, since bringing your child often requires extra money or crazy planning - or, as in the CIRM case, it is even forbidden.
Last February, an interesting article appeared on ArXiv: Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Mathematics Conferences by Greg Martin. It is a very well-done description of the problem, the unconscious bias, and concludes with practical guidelines for conference organisers. Childcare is included among the suggestions.
Childcare options and support at mathematics conferences are no news. For instance, the Association for Women in Mathematics has released a clear statement of intents and has some grants available for US mathematicians. Some months ago I even bumped into a post on Tenure, She Wrote, describing the experience of taking a baby to a conference and briefly debating the idea.
My personal suggestion is: why not making childcare a custom when organising mathematics conferences (*)? Sometime, little tricks can make a huge difference for parents:
- have a childcare room arranged: a comfortable chair for breastfeeding in a private space, a changing table, and a baby highchair are enough. The institution may even have one already and you would just need to inform participants;
- in the website, highlight the hotels that offer children facilities (such as cots, babysitting services, etc.);
- make sure lunch and dinner places have highchairs to provide to participants;
- if you can choose the venue, try to promote children friendly facilities (pram-friendly, etc.);
- provide all useful information on the event website (discounts for children on public transportation, children activities near the venue, ...);
- take family participation into account when calculating the registration fees.
These are the basics, and require close-to-zero money and efforts, but there is so much more one can do, especially if you can cut a piece for the good cause in your budget (or you can apply for money to promote gender equality in science):
- provide childcare grants to parents (regardless of gender). The more freedom, the better: they may even want to travel alone and pay for childcare at home. Give priority to breastfeeding mothers and single parents, for instance;
- cut some good deals with some babysitting agency and rental services for children accessories;
- organise some extra activity just for the rest of the family members to have something to do during the conference;
- nominate a contact person in charge of giving assistance to families during the conference (never underestimate the unimaginable ways kids can boycott your work events!).
If we start pushing these additional services when organising conference, they will soon become the usual and we will all benefit from them.(**)
You know, I am not here whining because I am myself a woman. I believe that it is healthy in terms of social fairness, work well-being, and even overall productivity to allow access to equal opportunities to everyone. The moment we cut off diversity, we lose a great asset. I am a passionate believer of the motto "happy people work better", so we have to remove as many obstacles as we can from people's ways.
Even though in the name of gender equality this should not be the case, women are the ones who would much benefit from an integration of childcare options or support, in academic life. This may encourage them to pursue the academic career in the first place, making them feel supported in their family life and plans (***). On the other hand, I am sure my male colleagues are not happy to leave the family at home every time they need to travel. In conclusion, I think this could be an important first step to balance the gender gap in mathematics and a great improvement in work well-being for everyone.
Do you think this could help? Have you experienced travelling with family to academic events? All comments are welcome.
(*) Of course this applies to all kinds of conferences and academic events!
(**) There is even an interesting ongoing call on H2020.
(***) Local gender studies have proven that one of the main reasons behind the gender gap in mathematics, is lack of stability in the academic career, when stability is top priority in family planning.