The Lack of Conference Childcare: A Barrier to Entry


Networking is a vital component of career development, especially for early-career professionals on the tenure track. As they begin the struggle to get their careers off the ground, they are, very likely, in their peak child-bearing and early child-rearing years. So when a junior faculty member with a 1-year-old daughter is invited to speak at a prestigious international conference and her partner isn't available for childcare, what should she do?

Not attending the conference would be a very bad career move, but she may not have a choice. Conference committees rarely provide adequate childcare information, let alone offer on-site childcare. Either option would allow scientists to bring their children along and still comfortably network with colleagues. For most scientists, paying for a companion, such as a friend or relative, to come along to take care of the children just isn't a realistic option.

Not that it isn't done. "It's a real problem, especially for those of us who have a husband who works, too," says Elizabeth Cowles, associate professor of biology at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic and president of the Connecticut chapter of the Association for Women in Science ( AWIS). Early in her career, Cowles's mother flew across the country to take care of her granddaughter so that Cowles and her husband could attend the same entomology meeting. Her parents still provide childcare when Cowles travels. "I don't know what I'd do without them. I can't afford a nanny."

For others, grandparents aren't a practical solution to the childcare problem, and the cost of not finding a solution can be high. "There is a very social construction to science. In order to be successful, you need to network," says Catherine Didion, executive director of AWIS. "But most professional meetings have no mechanism for, nor any understanding of, the possible need for childcare."

This may be because young scientists are afraid to talk about the issue. One scientist, an untenured professor, feared talking about the need for a solution lest her colleagues think she is not serious about her career. In fact, she notes, it is because she is indeed serious that she wishes there were a solution. "People say to me, 'You should have only one thing on your mind: Publish, publish, publish. You chose to have kids. You deal with it.' But this is a career-development issue. This is not a complaint. It's about removing barriers." And since female scientists are married to professional men far more often than the reverse--according to a University of California, Berkeley, study, the figure for women was 61% compared to just 27% for men--those barriers disproportionately affect women.

Indeed, if we're going to have more women doing science, we need to knock down those barriers. "It's about really creating opportunity," Didion says. "You're definitely changing the mix of people [in attendance] when you don't recognize that there is a peak child-bearing time for women." Ishita Mukerji, an associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and chair of the Biophysical Society's Professional Opportunities for Women committee, notes that "childcare is a way to facilitate the attendance of junior faculty at these meetings."

Doing the Footwork

But how much responsibility should conference sponsors assume? Some societies provide a list of local providers on their conference Web sites, and some provide on-site nursing rooms. But often this isn't enough. According to a recent, unpublished survey by Women in Neuroscience, 90% of the 115 respondents indicated that they would use an on-site childcare service if it were offered at the 2003 Society for Neuroscience meeting.

Those who organize and run the conferences aren't necessarily to be blamed. They have to make hard decisions about how to use limited time and resources. The Biophysical Society, for example, recognizes the need for conference childcare, says Mukerji, "but there are only so many hours in the day." Society office staff and committee volunteers already have their hands full. Finding an accredited, affordable, local provider that carries enough liability insurance to serve the purpose and that can accommodate the needs of temporary childcare requires much more footwork than most people realize.

There are also logistical issues. When the Society for Women Engineers ( SWE) annual meeting was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1997, the planning committee couldn't find a local provider to come on-site, according to Shirley Mondy, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife geologic engineer in Albuquerque and chair of SWE's Family Issues committee. Most daycare providers are too small to carry the necessary liability insurance. The committee considered carpooling children to an off-site facility where liability was not an issue, but that raised questions about liability during transport.

Success Stories

Things were different, though, at last year's meeting. Last year, SWE offered a service that's almost unprecedented: free, on-site childcare at its national meeting. Hewlett-Packard sponsored the service, which was available for about 9 hours each day and during the evening banquet.

There is no guarantee, though, that SWE will be able to do it again. Making the service free requires sponsorship, and the on-site location depends on whether the organizing committee can find a local provider who is willing to use the conference facility, and also on whether the facilities can accommodate a childcare program.

Companies specializing in on-site conference childcare:

Another success story is the American Geophysical Union's ( AGU's) gainful history with KiddieCorp, a nationally recognized childcare company with a $5 million liability insurance policy (see sidebar for links to additional companies specializing in conference childcare). KiddieCorp provides childcare at AGU meetings, and the number of children in the program has been increasing every year since AGU first offered it in 1996; last year about 20 to 25 children participated. The AGU-subsidized rate for conference attendees currently stands at $6 per hour. AGU contracts with KiddieCorp, guaranteeing that at least 12 children will be in the program, but AGU holds no responsibility for the services, according to AGU program manager Ellyn Terry. The liability contract is between KiddieCorp and the parents, who must contact the company directly to make arrangements. AGU's success with KiddieCorp proves that logistical hurdles to conference childcare can be overcome.

Many have suggested that the biggest barrier to conference childcare is neither logistics nor cost; instead, they say, the problem is a lack of recognition that there is a problem. As the anonymous scientist quoted earlier noted, it's often not considered acceptable in scientific circles to having--and admitting that you care about--your family. As a result, the problem is underrecognized.

There is hope, however, that this is changing. Being a parent and a scientist may be becoming more professionally acceptable. As Rachel Austin, a recently tenured assistant chemistry professor at Bates College, Maine, told Next Wave, "this is the first generation of scientists who feel free to say, 'Hey, I'm a parent.' "