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Despite various attempts to prevent women’s exodus from the academy, the leaky pipeline remains a problem. Popular efforts to plug the leaks include improving family leave policies and adding years to the tenure clock. In a recent paper in the journal Politics, Groups and Identities, we raise an unexplored solution: making it easier for women with children to participate in academic conferences.
Conferences are vital to scholars’ visibility in the research community, to landing book contracts and creating research connections that lead to positive promotion letters. Yet even though women’s presence in the academy has increased, few institutions and academic associations have considered, much less addressed, the particular hurdles conference participation presents for women scholars with children.
One obvious challenge is the added cost. If little ones travel to the conference, the academic parent usually must pay for additional plane tickets and childcare. Only a few institutions reimburse the childcare costs of attending a conference. And if children are left home, replacing the duties of the absent parent -- whether that means overnight childcare or the lost labor of performing typical weekend errands -- also has a high price tag.
Conference logistics and policies also work to impede full participation by parents with children. In our own field, political science, infants and children have been banned from the exhibit hall where scholars network with peers and publishers, pitch book ideas, and browse the latest publications and software for new ideas. Even when conferences provide nursing or breast-milk-pumping stations, they may be located in a different hotel than where a nursing mom is presenting or attending sessions.
Childcare offerings are often not robust, nor do associations publish their availability at the early date when scholars are expected to accept invitations to present. When childcare is provided, it is usually exorbitantly priced and rarely extends into the evening, when formal and informal networking occurs, forcing parents to miss such events in order to sit in a dark hotel room reading papers with a phone light under the covers or in the bathroom after the child falls asleep. (Yes, we have actually done this -- and more than once.) Moreover, since many association conferences can run for as long as five days, a parent can have conference responsibilities separated by several days, which further amplifies the costs and logistical challenges to participation.
Plugging the Leak
When two of us found ourselves planning a small conference, we consciously addressed those challenges by drawing upon our own negative personal experiences. It wasn’t difficult or expensive to make the event family friendly -- the keys were good communication, awareness and flexibility. The call for papers included information about childcare options and indicated our willingness to provide private spaces to pump breast milk or nurse babies. We asked participants to convey whether they’d be traveling with an elderly family member, any children, a partner or a caregiver and what they might need for the trip to be successful -- such as a family suite, recommendations for kids’ activities and any necessary equipment, like a portable crib. We invited families to attend our closing dinner and provided toys for little ones at the event. With modest efforts, we were able to minimize barriers, as evidenced by the fact that 20 percent of those who attended the conference were nursing moms.
Thus, making conference participation family friendly doesn’t have to break the bank. Professional organizations and higher education institutions can explore a host of changes and policies that we detail in our paper.
For example, associations can communicate robust childcare options before the proposal deadline, enhance efforts to accommodate breastfeeding moms and shorten conferences or adjust scheduling algorithms to reduce the days in attendance. Simple changes like creating clear policies on children’s participation, including establishing a children’s registration desk, providing a list of family-friendly restaurants and activities, and inviting families to attend one reception or event can also go a long way.
For colleges and universities, the most helpful changes revolve around how conference travel is funded. Institutional conference funds that must be used within the year disadvantage a scholar whose travel is limited by family responsibilities. Allowing those funds to roll over (even if the rollover only occurs when one has a child), or creating flexible systems with faculty travel accounts can help solve this issue by allowing a scholar to attend multiple conferences once those familial barriers to travel are reduced. At the time of each pregnancy or adoption, money could be banked for later use by faculty members to cover the added costs of conference attendance -- such as childcare, flights and shipping breast milk.
Budget considerations are what keep institutions from making such changes. By preventing faculty from rolling over funds, institutions are able to use those financial resources for other things, and creating additional support for conference travel would require new money. But the short-term budget impact doesn’t take into account the long-term loss of women faculty members eventually dropping out of academe entirely.
In summary, the way conferences are typically run and how higher education institutions fund travel expenses impede the participation of parents -- in particular, women scholars with children -- and limit their ability to network and benefit professionally from the conference if they do manage to attend. The good news is that, with a few changes, associations and institutions can make meaningful conference participation more likely for scholars with family responsibilities. And such changes can help put another plug in the leaky pipeline.