Making Conferences Easier for Families

Most mathematicians want to make mathematics, and especially mathematical academia, more hospitable to women. One way to do that is to help them participate as fully as possible in conferences, even when they have young children. Due to a sometimes inconvenient synchronization of biological and academic clocks, academics often have young children at crucial points in their careers. They may be on the job market or going up for tenure while their children are babies or toddlers, and making it to conferences can make a difference in their careers.

In August, Matilde Lalin wrote a guest post on Terry Tao’s blog about attending conferences with young children focused on the options for nursing mothers. The three main options she identifies are: travel with a caretaker, hire a caretaker at the conference location, or leave the child at home and pump. (The fourth option, not going to the conference at all, is one many families end up choosing, as Kate Owens mentions in the comments, but can come at a cost of opportunities for collaboration and networking.)

In addition to the financial considerations for each option, Lalin writes about scheduling and other logistical concerns, including the choices parents have to make about what to skip when they attend a conference with a child. She includes practical suggestions for conference organizers about how to make conferences easier for nursing mothers and links to several organizations that are helping support academic parents. Of course, many of her suggestions also apply to parents who are traveling with kids but not breastfeeding.

As a non-parent, I must admit that I hadn’t really thought about the burden of child care at conferences until Jordan Ellenberg wrote about it a couple years ago. He argues that the NSF should fund conference daycare. There are quite a few interesting comments to the post about whether or not childcare should be considered a business expense. I think the one that sums it up the best for me is by jenfns, who writes, “I guess the question is whether it should be a cost of the employer to pay for travelling employees’ childcare. Since our society does in fact have a vested interest in successful professional women bearing and raising children, I think that the answer should be yes.” Unfortunately, for federal tax purposes, child care costs are not considered “necessary” expenses, and I assume until that changes, the NSF will not be able to reimburse conference child care costs.

Last month, Laura McLay wrote on her blog Punk Rock Operations Research that the Forum for Women in OR/MS (delightfully acronym’d WORMS) is sponsoring grants to reimburse child care costs for parents traveling to the INFORMS Annual Meeting. And I just saw that the AMS and MAA are also rising to the occasion, with about 40 child care grants available for mathematicians attending the Joint Mathematics Meetings in January. Applications for those grants are open until November 18. The JMM has had subsidized (but still expensive) child care available for several years, but as far as I know, this is the first year they will also have reimbursement grants available.

Better support of child care costs will help women most directly, but it should be noted that all the grants I have seen are available to both men and women, as they should be. Women sometimes shoulder the lion’s share of the child-rearing duties, but the idea that raising children is only “women’s work” is antiquated and devalues the active role many men play in their children’s day-to-day care. Paying for child care at conferences is a way to make life easier for both men and women who are trying to balance their careers and families.

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