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Tackling the “childcare-conference conundrum”

Primary caretakers face inequitable professional hurdles. The Working Group of Mothers in Science suggest solutions for the child care-conference conundrum.

Attending conferences is a critical part of professional development, particularly for early-stage academic researchers. At these meetings, scientists further their careers by presenting their research discoveries and networking with potential collaborators, employers and funding agencies.

However, many early-stage researchers are moms who are the primary caretakers of their children, which makes it difficult to attend conferences that lack child care accommodations. Recently, a group of women scientists came together to address this “childcare-conference conundrum.”

The group, called a Working Group of Mothers in Science, was spearheaded by Rebecca Calisi, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. Last fall, she reached out to other women scientists after attending a large neuroscience conference — including Stanford's Erin Gibson, PhD, a research scientist in neurology, and Lauren O’Connell, PhD, an assistant professor of biology — and this led to the formation of the group of almost 50 women last December.

The group wants to help conferences establish safe and effective child care options for all working parents with young children. They argue that solving the child care-conference conundrum will help primary caretakers, foster scientific advancements and innovation by allowing a population of scientists to remain engaged, and benefit the conferences themselves and businesses associated with them.

“While child care disproportionately affects women and their career mobility especially in the sciences, we want to bring attention to this problem as it can impact all parents from breastfeeding mothers to fathers who are the primary caretakers,” explained Gibson. “Relatively simple changes could dramatically affect the lives of primary caregivers at these conferences. And the more well-trained scientists we can keep in science by not leaving them out due to child care restrictions, the more the entire scientific community benefits.”

In an editorial published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group outlined four concrete recommendations for organizations:

  • Provide financial support for individually arranged child care for smaller conferences and onsite child care for larger ones.
  • Select family-friendly dates, venues and daily schedules.
  • Provide adequate facilities and equipment, including lactation areas with storage lockers for breast pumps and refrigeration for expressed milk; baby-changing facilities in all bathrooms and dedicated playroom space.
  • Establish a conference-specific parent social network.

The authors wrote that the adoption of these practices will send a strong and positive message, as well as support an inclusive family-friendly environment.

“I have never had a positive experience attending a conference after having children,  whether I was nursing either of my two daughters or just wanting them to attend,” Gibson told me. “We hope this op-ed can help guide future conferences to provide resources for working parents. I hope within the next year to attend conferences where all scientists feel included, especially those with children.”

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem

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