More Kids and Conferences

The kids and conferences issue, discussed here a while ago has continued to spark discussion, with a Tenure She Wrote piece on how to increase gender diversity among conference speakers and a Physics Focus blog post on a mother who wound up taking her toddler to a meeting. There are some good points in both, though the Tenure She Wrote poster seems to be in a field whose conferences run on a different model than that used for most meetings I go to.

The Physics Focus post was particularly interesting to me, though, because I spent last weekend as the portable conference day-care while Kate went to Readercon. She's on their safety committee, and thus was obliged to be there, but our usual kid-watching options all fell through. We have friends in the Boston area, though, so I offered to come along and take the kids out with other people while she did con stuff. We had a nice trip to Crane Beach with a friend from Williams and his two kids on Saturday, and then a visit to the Museum of Science on Sunday with a friend from Usenet and his two kids (where the "featured image" photo of The Pip with a Triceratops skeleton was taken).

While this worked, it was definitely a sub-optimal arrangement for everyone. This was mostly the fault of the Boston Marriott Burlington who interpreted Kate's request for two adjoining rooms on a low floor to be compatible with two rooms across the hall and three doors down from each other on the top floor. This meant that, rather than being able to put the kids to sleep in one room where they could be minded by one of us in an adjoining room, we were both tethered to a hotel room during night-time hours, me in one room with SteelyKid and Kate with The Pip in the other. The whole thing was thoroughly exhausting.

Now, this is by no means a perfect parallel to the problematic situations described in those blog posts-- going to Readercon is by no means professionally essential for either of us, and we have the resources (both financial (getting a second hotel room) and social (friends in the area)) to swing bringing the kids along. But in the unlikely event that hearing it from me will carry more weight than the links above, I will happily confirm that this sort of situation kind of sucks. If you think that concerns about child care don't or shouldn't represent a real impediment to attending conferences, you're not just wrong, you're spectacularly wrong.

(Of course, the options for actually doing anything about this are kind of limited-- on-site child-care is expensive and often unsatisfactory (as demonstrated by many of the comment-thread discussions of this); subsidizing child-care back at the home of the traveling parent is probably not all that much cheaper, and brings with it another host of problems; and paying for somebody to accompany the traveling parent to the meeting is way more expensive. The most feasible thing would be to allow some sort of at-home child-care subsidy from grants or institutional travel funds, but those are not that widely available. And while greater social acceptance and sensitivity toward child and family issues is in some sense the "right" solution to this, it's a slow, uphill fight.)

(As far as the kids go, SteelyKid was thrilled to be staying at a hotel-- new places! people! ice machines! swimming pools!-- and both kids were very happy with our excursions, hitting it off great with our friends' kids. Given better logistics at the hotel, I would be open to doing it again next year, especially since The Pip will presumably be a little easier to manage by then (our plans were tightly constrained by his dietary restrictions and need for a mid-day nap, both of which will probably ease up over time). It's not a trivial sacrifice, though, and would be much harder in a different or changing location.)

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If you think that concerns about child care don’t or shouldn’t represent a real impediment to attending conferences, you’re not just wrong, you’re spectacularly wrong.

Depends what you mean by "shouldn't" here. In my ideal world, parents wouldn't have to worry about such things, as it would be simple to make the necessary arrangements. But in the world we actually habit, yes, this is a major problem.

Isolated conference locations definitely make things worse. That includes suburban locations like your hotel at Readercon (was that the hotel where it was actually held?), and it goes even more for rural resort locations. I've been to Schloss Ringberg, site of the meeting described in the linked Physics Forum post, and pretty much the only way to make that scenario worse would be to have a conference there in winter (either you put on tire chains to drive up the road to the castle, or you park at the bottom of the hill and walk).

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Jul 2013 #permalink

Depends what you mean by “shouldn’t” here. In my ideal world, parents wouldn’t have to worry about such things, as it would be simple to make the necessary arrangements. But in the world we actually habit, yes, this is a major problem.

That's a fair correction. I was thinking more of the people who insist that family responsibilities are a completely insignificant factor when making professional decisions. Which is depressingly common.

The location of conferences is a tricky thing, because of course the more central locations are often more expensive and thus out of the reach of some organizations. And the size of a meeting can also constrain the possible venues-- as of a couple of years ago, my "home" conference of DAMOP got too big to be hosted by local universities any more, and has now shifted into rotating through second-tier cities with affordable conference centers (with an exception for this year's meeting in the not all that cheap Quebec City...).

There are also programs to encourage meetings in certain locations-- I went to a very nice workshop once in the middle of nowhere in Austria, which was held where it was because of an EU program that provided subsidies for conferences held in economically depressed areas. That sort of thing can allow a much better conference in some ways, but also makes travel more complicated, and reduces the opportunities for things like child care.

One thing I forgot to mention, which doesn't apply in your field, is fieldwork. A significant fraction of the work in my field involves traveling to remote locations to study certain phenomena. I've been to Fairbanks in the course of my work; some of my colleagues have been to places like the Canadian Arctic, Svalbard, and even Antarctica. Bringing an older kid to Fairbanks is just barely possible if school is not in session (I worked with one person who did that), but it's still a logistical nightmare, so most scientists don't try (on a different trip one of my colleagues had a ritual of reading bedtime stories over the phone to her then five-year-old daughter). At least Fairbanks is served by several daily flights year round. In some parts of the Canadian Arctic, *the plane* (by which I mean a Twin Otter, not a jet) comes only two or three times a week. In Antarctica, you may have to wait several days for a break in the weather before you can get a plane out. Bringing the kid is not an option.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 19 Jul 2013 #permalink