Why are we still discussing conference child care arrangements?
In 2001, I attended the women’s caucus of the Association for Jewish Studies for the first time. The topic of the discussion was child care arrangements for conference attendees. At the AJS, it has remained the major topic of discussion every year since -- crowding out all the other issues that face women in academe. Women continue to experience a significant wage gap. Women negotiating for research funds, summer salary, class sizes and leave are often treated differently from men. Women on average take longer to reach tenure and to become full professors.
Combined, these issues mean that women have less capital within the higher education system and serve in less prestigious service roles, with lower salary bumps for doing so. All of this is assuming women can even get tenure-track jobs. Women make up a larger percentage of contingent faculty members, a rate that is increasing as tenure lines are cut and service courses need to be provided. These are major issues that face women within the profession. In 2001, I was a single and childless student; later, as a junior faculty member, I wanted to be mentored in a way that would allow me to navigate many of these pitfalls -- and yet child care remained the dominant conversation at the table.
And here we are, 14 years later, and I now have a baby, and no conference provisions for child care at the AJS. While a limited number of grants are available to help pay for up to 10 hours of child care (during a three-day conference) there is no provision of a child minder for me to pay. At most, this would allow me to fulfill my obligations at three sessions, including giving a paper, chairing a panel and introducing a cultural event -- that is, if I can find a caregiver. It does not enable me to attend the keynote, other papers in my section or any of the evening receptions.
At the Modern Language Association in January, I am scheduled to speak on the first day and the last day of the conference. This requires a four- or five-day trip, due to flight scheduling. After contacting the MLA in July I was informed that organized child care arrangements depend on the number of requests the conference receives. If there are not enough requests for the organization to arrange babysitting, then the hotel may be able to refer me to a company and some compensation will be provided -- though the details at present are unclear and no information would be available until September. (See MLA website.) In order to have my submission for a paper accepted, I had to register for the conference by March, long before there was clarity on the child care issue. This attitude toward child care is common across the profession.
At the recent American Political Science Association conference, which hires an external service provider to offer excellent child care provisions that cover the long hours of the five-day conference, these offerings come at a significant price -- one met by the parents. Those who thought that they could skip some of this cost by taking their child with them to the exhibition hall found they were denied admission. While the APSA provided activities in a dedicated location, at most conferences no such facilities are offered. For those sourcing private child care, where no other alternatives exist, a hotel bedroom is hardly a suitable location for a child to spend several days.
The APSA is actually an exception. It is rare for there to be organized child care, and more often faculty are directed to outside agencies, with no guarantee about the availability of caregivers, nor their quality. Similarly, organizations often provide a limited number of stipends that can help defray some of the expenses involved, but these grants are rarely more than partial and symbolic, and do not alleviate the additional burden of what for many is an unreimbursed trip.
The political scientist who wrote in to defend the APSA policy, saying, “I leave my kids at home with their other parent. I know others who leave kids with grandparents,” assumes an idealistic domestic situation -- one that does not reflect many people’s reality. Academics often live far from their families, may have older or deceased parents, may have spouses who work outside academia, if they have spouses at all, and lack the kind of support that allows many to leave children for extended periods. Rarely do academics in their childbearing years earn enough money to be able to afford full-time care, day and night, while traveling to conferences.
Because here is the rub: In what other profession are people expected and even required to travel for their work without full reimbursement for the cost of flights, accommodation, fees, transport and expensive banquet events? It is only a very lucky few who receive more than partial reimbursement from their institutions (and for many even that is unavailable) without adding the additional burden of child care costs to this trip. Yet conference attendance is a critical aspect of a professional career in academia and not only includes sharing scholarship and creating networking opportunities; it may include job interviews and is a vital part of a career profile in hiring, tenure and promotion decisions.
Child care is a systemic issue within the profession and one that needs to be addressed by the organizing committees at the planning stage. Like receptions, catering, events, awards and book fairs, child care needs to be offered on-site and cover the same long hours that the conference sessions and proceedings do. Child care needs to be affordable not just for tenured academics at wealthy and prestigious institutions but for graduate students, contingent and junior faculty. The questions should not be about the few who benefit from these services, or the risk that associations may lose money by providing these services -- instead we should view providing and subsidizing this resource as an opportunity to hear from scholars who would otherwise be unable to participate. The benefit to the many is the rich contribution that can be made by those who otherwise cut short their attendance, avoid service roles, miss sessions or entirely refrain from conference participation.
Organizations need to provide realistic options for academic parents, male and female, who are primary caregivers (including single parents) that allows participants to take advantage of the networking and mentoring opportunities that ultimately lead to more publications, strengthen research agendas, and acquire and develop skills for professional advancement -- that is, tackle all the other issues facing women in the profession.
It is disingenuous to ask why this topic remains a women’s problem, but it should not be the problem of women’s groups. Instead it is time that program committees and academic associations more broadly take responsibility. For many women to be able to attend conferences, child care facilities need to be provided -- so that this no longer needs to be the dominant topic of the conversation.
Rachel S. Harris is associate professor of Israeli literature and culture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.