Skip navigation

Conference childcare for scientists is starting to show signs of improvement

Things are progressing, but there is still work to be done.


While a postdoctoral fellow in quantum physics at the University of Toronto, Anaelle Hertz wanted to attend the Central European Workshop on Quantum Optics (CEWQO), a conference held in July 2023 in Milan, Italy. The youngest of her two children, then seven months old, was still breastfeeding. She reached out to conference organizers to see what structures were in place to support lactating scientists attending the meeting. The answer: nothing at all. Quantum physics is a strongly male-dominated field, explains Dr. Hertz. Throughout her bachelors, master’s and PhD, she says “I was always surrounded by men. It’s not always easy to be the only woman in this field, but it was okay… until I started to have kids.”

Fortunately, the main organizer of CEWQO asked what Dr. Hertz needed and was receptive to finding solutions. She requested funding to
support babysitting and a private place to breastfeed. The organizers offered her a 50 per cent reduction in conference fees and access to a private office. She was also connected to a babysitter to hire for daytime care. But when Dr. Hertz reached out to her research funder, Canada’s National Research Council (NRC), to ask what support they could provide, the answer, she says, was all too familiar: “No babysitting, no travel, no food, no nothing.” That did not halt her plans to attend but did give her pause. In a LinkedIn post beside a photo of Dr. Hertz smiling with cherubic infant in her arms and a CEWQO banner in the background, she wrote “Having a family and being present for them does not mean that we have to stop our career progression. This includes going to conferences. That’s why, at seven months, my baby boy already attended his first quantum conference.”

Childcare availability, caregiver travel grants and infrastructural support for parents attending conferences, especially for birth-giving and lactating parents, are more common in some academic fields than others. Dr. Hertz’s experience of having to take the lead on creating the infrastructure she needed demonstrates that even in 2023, when it comes to inclusion and accessibility of conferences for academic parents in Canada and abroad, it’s not a level playing field.

Conference landscapes

Imogen Coe is an equity, diversity and inclusion consultant and professor of chemistry and biology at Toronto Metropolitan University where she was the founding dean of the faculty of science. She notes that while “there’s a lot of awareness about the challenges of being a parent or being a woman in science,” conference organizers have been slower to change. “I can remember as an early career researcher attending quite a prestigious conference in my field, and as a single parent, I didn’t have a partner who could stay home to look after the kids. I can remember being told quite explicitly that no, children were not allowed,” says Dr. Coe. “That was back then. Now, clearly, we’re trying to create these environments where academics and scientists are recognized for being full human beings.”

In 2021, Dr. Coe and her colleagues published a how-to for inclusive conferences in the journal FACETS. Their recommendations address EDI actions generally, but also include steps for making conferences inclusive specifically for parents, noting that childcare needs often impact marginalized and equity-deserving groups disproportionately.

Part of the effort required to make conferences accessible involves providing quiet and/or nursing rooms for parents, an issue that prompted Rebecca Calisi-Rodríguez at the University of California Davis, along with 45 other members of the non-profit support group Mothers in Science, to co-author “How to tackle the childcare–conference conundrum,” published in the journal PNAS in 2018. At the time, she was in the midst of her own tenure track journey as an assistant professor navigating conference attendance with her second child. “One of the big things was to get my name out there, network, get my work out there, take my students to these conferences. And I found it almost near impossible to do, at least on a regular basis, with a little one,” she says. “I was trying to explore how to make things better.” She recalls how a Society for Neuroscience (SFM) conference she attended in 2017 made big claims about supporting moms and providing a lactation room. “I thought, that’s awesome,” she says. Upon arrival she found that “room” was a metal wire chair behind a curtain.

Dr. Calisi-Rodriguez’s co-authored article recommended several solutions including financial support for individually arranged or on-site childcare, cultural acceptance of baby-wearing and free conference access for caregivers, along with family-friendly scheduling, mealtimes and social events. The PNAS paper appears to have made a difference, prompting improved support including at the Society for Neuroscience conference where the following year, Dr. Calisi-Rodriguez observed modern and welcoming lactation facilities.

Solutions – more than just infrastructure

Making parents with young children feel welcome at academic conferences is one measure that contributes to fixing dilapidated plumbing along the “leaky pipeline” – the attrition of women especially acute in STEMM fields. According to statistics compiled by Mothers in Science, one third of women say their competence has been questioned by employers and colleagues since becoming a parent. Women are three times more likely than men to say they have been offered fewer professional opportunities since becoming a parent. And globally, 34 per cent of mothers leave fulltime STEMM employment after becoming a parent. Traditionally family-unfriendly and unaccommodating academic conferences are just one of many institutional and cultural barriers that need to be addressed.

Cultural barriers can be broken down by parents of any gender. As a father, neuropharmacologist Jibran Khokar at Western University sought to change cultural norms at a Canadian Association for Neuroscience conference in 2017. Walking up to ask a question very quietly with his sleeping 10-month-old nestled in his arms, Dr. Khokar recalls, “It got a lot of ahhhhhhs. But also, I think it normalizes for people and provides representation for parents.”

While there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for navigating conferences with kids, many academic parents say having support can mean the difference between being able to attend conferences or not at all. Laura Grieneisen, assistant professor of biology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan was excited to attend the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution and Canadian Botanical Association (CSEE-CBA) joint conference in Winnipeg in June 2023, shortly after she had arrived in Canada to start her new job. With two children, one aged four years and the other 17 months old, and her spouse teaching for the summer term, she says “the only reason I could attend this conference at all is because they were offering a free full day of childcare.” She admits at first being nervous bringing her 17-month-old child to a conference by herself, but felt more comfortable seeing the toys, crafts and other kids in the childcare room. “I would drop him off with his little lunchbox to play. Whoever was organizing the care for the conference did a really nice job,” she says.

One member of the committee spearheading childminding for the CSEE-CBA conference was University of Manitoba fungal pathologist Aleeza Gerstein, who admits “we didn’t really have a road map to follow.” Writing an RFP, parsing the legalese, interviewing, selecting and coordinating a service provider entailed a significant amount of work. At about 10 parents, uptake was also modest – perhaps because of its novelty. “Probably, offering childcare is not enough,” she suggests. “We also need grants,” so that people can bring their own supports along, in the form of partners or grandparents.

Dr. Grieneisen compares the CSEE-CBA experience to the much larger Ecological Society of America conference held in Portland in August 2023, which offered subsidized childcare for a 50 per cent discounted fee of USD $9/hour. ESA has offered childcare during annual meetings since 1997. However, by the time she attempted registration for the childcare, there was already a waitlist. “That really emphasizes how much this is a wanted and needed conference aspect,” she says.

Oversubscribed childcare at meetings was also an issue for UBC postdoctoral fellow Kira Hoffman, who was scheduled to present at the 2022 CSEE-ESA meeting in Montreal. “I applied for a childcare grant and didn’t get one,” she says. That meant she couldn’t go. “They made no concession for me to pre-record anything. And that was really disappointing.” Now Ms. Hoffman specifically chooses conferences with EDI statements supportive of parents, with childcare options and travel support. “A lot of granting agencies don’t support this,” she says. In contrast, Ms. Hoffman’s non-profit research funder, the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, paid for her mother to accompany her to the 2019 Canada Wildfire Conference as a caregiver for her children.

Canada’s federal academic funding agencies, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) emphasize their general commitment to EDI, but none include specific language guiding financial administration of grant funding to be used for childcare at a conference or travel support for an accompanying carer. Instead, it is up to each individual’s institution to define policies and practices, leaving many researchers in Canada with uncertainty, a lack of clarity and tough decisions around allocation of limited resources.

Ms. Hoffman is grateful for National Geographic and the Bulkley Valley Research Centre, funders that allow built-in childcare support costs.
Model systems outside of academia also provide inspiration. “My husband worked for Patagonia for 15 years and they had the best childcare policy I’ve ever seen.” When travelling for work with a baby, “it was automatically paid for that I came,” she says. The company covered travel, food and hotel with family-appropriate accommodations.

Not one size fits all

For parents with young children, the challenges attending conferences are dynamic and change with child age. “When you have a newborn baby, it’s relatively easy just to package them up and take them with you to a conference,” says Ms. Hoffman, who has given presentations throughout her PhD and postdoctoral fellowship while wearing a sleeping infant. Then again, she laments that while wearing a baby, “no one actually wants to treat you as a scientist. It’s hard because you have this challenging identity where you’re trying to be one thing, but also the other thing, and you don’t understand why you can’t really be both.” As a fire ecologist often working in First Nations territories, Ms. Hoffman says she has found these cultural milieus much more supportive than academia of work-life balance and a dual identity. The Gitanyow community among whom she currently works expects and welcomes her children on field visits. “They see me as being able to easily span both worlds.”

One Canadian research funding organization that does explicitly make grants available for flexible childcare support is the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR). Katherine Elvira, a Canada Research Chair and University of Victoria chemistry professor, had her first child just over a year ago. She and her partner are both early career academics and she’s been invited to give many talks since her daughter was born. “CIFAR is the only one that provided funding for child carers to come,” she says. I don’t know how I would have been able to come without a child carer.”

For solo parents in academia, conferences are even more difficult. In March 2020, Amanda Moehring’ husband died suddenly, leaving the Western University professor to solo parent her kids now aged 19, 14 and 11. “It’s been really challenging trying to figure out how to travel for work,” she says. While many conferences increasingly offer onsite childcare, Dr. Moehring notes that often only applies to younger children. “I looked into hiring someone to stay at the house with them, but the quote was $400 a night,” she says. “Honestly, I am at a loss of how to do this. I have had, from both of my major societies – Canadian and European societies of evolutionary biology – a caregiver grant of $500, which is really useful.” She’s used it for her kids to order takeout each night, but it doesn’t come close to covering travel costs. Nevertheless, when invited to speak, she fears asking for more given budgetary constraints. “If it’s not just one ticket but three, they might not invite me,” she says.

The road ahead

Even in traditionally male-dominated fields such as chemistry, there are signs of change. Stephanie MacQuarrie, associate dean of science and technology at Cape Breton University, helped spearhead onsite childcare at meetings for the Canadian Society of Chemistry, the country’s only national chemistry conference, based on recommendations of their EDI working group.

“If we want to move chemistry and science forward, collaboration is key, and real collaboration only happens or starts at these conferences.” She remembers how early in her career with young children and no conference childcare in place, she often had to miss conferences. As a result, Dr. MacQuarrie says, “it took me a lot longer to establish collaborations and connections across Canada.” Since 2018, all in-person CSC conferences have made reduced-fee childcare available, subsidized in perpetuity by a small increase in registration fees. That level of childcare at a national chemistry meeting, in such a traditionally male-dominated discipline, is a “real triumph,” adds Dr. Coe at TMU.

Despite a growing number of “triumphs” for academics balancing parenting and professional roles, there remains widespread variation from country to country and conference to conference. For instance, the conference hosted by Acfas, the French-Canadian association for the advancement of science, relies on the host university for implementing equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives and as a result, organizers say the level of support available varies from year to year depending on the institution.

The wide variation in childcare options remains a source of frustration for many early career researchers who say even without support, they can’t afford to miss certain conferences. On her way to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting in Germany in June 2023 as a young scientist, University of California Irvine professor Dequina Nicholas first had to fly from California to Florida at her own expense to drop off her toddler with her mother. While she worried about incurring debt, the price of not going she says, is much steeper. “When it comes to important conferences, I’ll dig into my credit card in order to go. I know the tenure rate for women with children compared to women without children. I don’t want to be a statistic.”

To ensure that not just parents, but all underrepresented groups do not miss out on conference opportunities critical to career advancement, “what needs to happen is a change at the institutional level,” argues Dr. Calisi-Rodriguez. “Unless we fix our foundational issues, we’re just going to keep putting band aid on top of band aid on top of band aid.” And for Annaelle Hertz, that change starts with academic parents speaking up. “Having money to support the cost of childcare during a conference is not easy to obtain yet, but we need to fight for it,” said Dr. Hertz in her post from July 2023. “Parents, don’t be afraid to ask and we will slowly change the mentalities of funding agencies and entities so more parents can attend conferences.”

Lesley Evans Ogden
Lesley Evans Ogden is an ecologist-turned-freelance science journalist based near Vancouver. She’s on Twitter @ljevanso.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey