Finding childcare for work travel is hard, but better options are within our reach

A full agenda.
A full agenda.
Image: EPA/Patrick Seeger
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For career scientists and academics, conferences are not optional. They’re a place where researchers can present their work to peers, learn about new developments in their field, and form relationships that lead to exciting new collaborations. They are a valuable career accelerant.

For a working parent, however, they can also be impossibly difficult. Finding childcare for the duration of a conference can be in some cases as complicated and stress-inducing as preparing to present at one.

It’s also a task more likely to be shouldered by working mothers than fathers. Even those able to make childcare arrangements for work travel often find that parenting responsibilities follow them on their trip. Reproductive biologist Rebecca M. Calisi realized this years ago while pumping breastmilk in a dingy restroom stall during an academic conference. With a five-week-old baby at home, Calisi shuttled frantically between presentations and pumping breaks, lugging an unwieldy cooler of breast milk and wondering if there wasn’t a better way.

Now an assistant professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Davis, Calisi is urging fellow scientists to pave that better way. In a recent paper in the journal PNAS written on behalf of a working group of mothers in science, Calisi outlined steps to make conferences more accessible to working moms. Contracting with one of the many companies that offer on-site childcare during such events, as many major academic and professional conferences already do, is an excellent start. Extending conference scholarships or subsidies to cover childcare costs as a travel expense is another. In an email to Quartz At Work, Calisi praised the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which offers childcare plus ample space at its annual meeting for nursing, pumping, and storing breastmilk.

More family-friendly changes to conference culture could also go a long way. Many women (and men) are anxious at the prospect of wearing a baby in a carrier during a general session, or bringing older children to a working conference lunch, for fear they’ll appear less professional. Do they need to be? Children haven’t been a common sight at conferences in the past, and not without good reason. There will certainly be times when fussy or exuberant children may need to be led out to avoid disrupting proceedings, and it’s far more fair if both mothers and fathers consider taking their kids to work in this way. But is keeping conference culture the same as it was during a time of less equality more important than keeping women in science?

Having to pass up career-advancing travel is one of many factors that contribute to the motherhood penalty, the dip in wages and promotion likelihood that occurs after women (but not men) have children. So much of those earnings and potential are eaten away by the collective toll of housework, childcare, and other unpaid labor that falls disproportionately to women. For the pay gap to disappear, some pre-existing norms and expectations may have to as well.

This story is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more stories here.