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Every conference should offer childcare

Cassie Werber
By Cassie Werber

Reporter

When Yan Liu, an associate professor in machine learning at the University of Southern California, had her first child, she found herself in a situation many academics recognize. Her baby was four months old, and one of the field’s major conferences was about to take place. There would be days of intensive daytime sessions and evenings of networking, tightly scheduled, all in a different city.

Liu enlisted the help of her husband, and got in the car: At least the event was within driving distance and, since it was a particularly important conference for her career development, Liu’s husband was able to drop everything to come with her. But she missed other conferences in those early months and years. Distant events, or those which took place when her partner was busy, just seemed impossible with a tiny baby at home. The problem of conferences, in both academia and business, has been felt by parents—particularly, it has to be said, mothers—for years. The upshot of so many adult-only events has been a lot of coping, and a lot of missing out.

Since Liu made that drive to LA six years ago, things have begun to change. Now director of the USC Machine Learning Centre, she is also chair of the organizing committee for KDD 2020, a large conference for data scientists to be held in San Diego, California, that will offer childcare facilities for the duration of the weekend. This year’s conference builds on KDD 2019, which introduced childcare for the first time—and saw a five percentage point jump in female attendance from the previous year.

And data science isn’t alone: Conferences in a range of fields are waking up to the fact that, as events for knowledge sharing and professional development, they’re missing something if parents struggle to attend. The change over just a few years is marked—In 2016, a woman was ejected from TED’s conference on women, TEDWomen, for bringing her breastfeeding baby into the venue. (When contacted for this article, TED said that it supports nursing mothers by providing “lounges for pumping and suggestions for child care.” It doesn’t provide childcare and children, including babies, are not allowed into its conference venues.)

Liu said that it’s well known in academia and the wider science industry that women with very young children, and often men with multiple children, often miss out. “Why is it important for them to attend the conferences for the first few years after they have a child?” she asks. “Because this is the critical time not only for childbearing, but also a critical time for career development, and the women miss important opportunities if they don’t participate in the conference[s]. And there’s always this constant trade-off between whether I should go to a conference or I should stay at home to take care of my child.”

The trend for including childcare in conferences is perhaps most obvious in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM), maybe because those arenas know they already have low female participation and are trying to find creative fixes. There’s evidence of it emerging in other industries, but patchily. In 2019 the Cannes Film Festival offered childcare, paid for separately by participants, for the first time. The Cannes Lions festival for the advertising industry, held in the same city a few weeks later, did not, despite calls for it to address its exclusivity and accounts from parents of the trials of attending. A spokesperson said that the festival provides suggestions for childcare and in 2019 allowed a handful of children to attend free of charge.

What kids bring

PyCon UK, an important industry event for developers and others who work with the Python programming language, has been offering onsite childcare since 2016. It takes its cue from the wider Python community, in which inclusivity is a central tenet, explained Owen Campbell, one of the organizers of PyCon UK. (Python is an open source language maintained by a volunteer community, with no corporate “owner,” marking it out from other programming languages, he explained.) The onsite crèche not only allows parents to drop kids off, Campbell said, but also to spend time with them during breaks. The idea is that it contributes to an atmosphere where parents are encouraged to take kids into sessions if they want to, and nursing mothers to breastfeed wherever they want (though a quiet room is also available.)

Those leading the way say it’s fundamental to making the conference scene fairer, and more diverse.

“I’m a middle-aged white heterosexual man, and I’m sick and tired of going to conferences that are populated by people who look just like me,” PyCon UK’s Campbell told Quartz. “I want to hear from people who look very different to me.”

Why it is taking so long for conference organizers to wake up to the childcare problem and try to solve it?

One reason is simply logistics. Specialist event childcare services have proliferated in the last few years, and their expertise is valuable in dealing with how to keep kids safe in large semi-public spaces, including dealing with issues like food allergies, special needs, insurance, and the diverse requirements of different-age kids. (At Liu’s San Diego conference, for example, the weather will be nice but organisers don’t yet know how to ensure the kids get to play outside.)

Another reason is that, faced with problems, parents are adept at finding ways to cope. Across the world there will be millions of stories like Liu’s, of bundling babies and partners—or parents, or nannies—into cars, finding temporary childcare arrangements, or popping back to a hotel room every four hours to breastfeed. Liu said it was unclear, until KDD began running the crêche, what the uptake would be. But in its first year of 2019, the childcare service looked after between 30 and 40 kids at any one time, and 851 women attended, making up 28% of conference attendees, an increase from 23% the previous year.

Cost is an issue, but not a huge one: Compared to venue hire, speaker fees, and catering, childcare is cheap in most countries. In most of the examples here, childcare was included in the ticket price, but charging separately, as the Cannes Film Festival did, is also a more inclusive option than simply refusing to address the existence of kids in many adults’ lives.

Liu said that though the organizing committee had been aware of the problem for years, the #MeToo movement of 2017 may have had a role in pushing them to finally make the leap.

She also described a surprising discovery: That conferences, which attract attendees from all over the world, can be special environments for the children themselves. At ICML 2019, a conference for machine learning held in LA that offers childcare, Liu’s six-year-old daughter returned at the end of the first day saying she’d made friends—from Germany, France, China, and elsewhere.

“Even though they don’t speak the same languages they were able to communicate… and she was able to make friends all over the world,” Liu said. It was “a serendipity that I didn’t expect.”

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