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In a new opinion piece in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a Working Group of Mothers in Science considers “How to Tackle the Childcare–Conference Conundrum.” Primary caretakers of dependent children “face inequitable hurdles to fully attending and participating in conference activities because of responsibilities related to pregnancy, breastfeeding and caretaking,” the article says. “It’s a serious problem because it creates a culture of inequity for parents, with mothers generally experiencing greater disadvantages than fathers because of biological, prejudicial, and often socially driven childcare demands.” 

With solutions “seemingly elusive,” the authors wrote, “many women, and occasionally men, make a calculated decision to forego conference attendance and suffer the career consequences.” What can be done? The authors suggest that research societies and conference organizers follow what they call a “CARE” model, for childcare, accommodating families, offering resources and establishing social networks. As for childcare, the working group says that smaller conferences may offer financial support for individually arranged childcare and that larger ones may offer care onsite.

“Onsite facilities, such as those provided by the Society for Neuroscience and the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, allow for frequent check-ins from parents and support breastfeeding,” the article says. “Conference organizers can now connect with companies that specialize in professional onsite conference childcare, often with their own liability policies. Providing childcare for dependent children of all ages is an important step, as is ensuring affordability for conferencing parents,” many of whom are students, postdoctoral fellows or early-career researchers.

Funding such efforts could be achieved by “redistributing the way society funds are used to support these efforts, modestly increasing registration and/or exhibitor fees, or by soliciting donations from registrants and/or exhibitors on their registration form, for which donors would receive a decal advertising their support for parents in science,” the paper notes. It further suggests that host organizations support caregivers who travel to conferences along with academics through travel and housing grants. Conferences also should allow babywearing among participants, it says, offer lactation spaces and consider “family-friendly” dates and venues in planning -- such as by avoiding holidays and weekends when childcare centers are closed.