Sunday, 22 November 2015

How to make important conferences suck for young families

Next summer, the big once-every-four-years coral reef conference, ICRS, will take place in Honolulu, Hawaii. With poor timing on my part, I suppose, I’ll have a breastfeeding infant along with me – just like last time. And again, like the 2012 ICRS, the 2016 ICRS intends to provide no help organizing childcare.

This is, in my opinion, ridiculous.

The 2012 ICRS conference was full of babies. They were crawling around the presentation rooms, bouncing on hips during the poster sessions, and squawking during the lunches. There were babies everywhere distracting their parents from fully participating in the conference because there were no offered childcare arrangements.

I complained then, I complained after the conference, and I am almost certain other parents complained, yet the upcoming 2016 ICRS provides only the following:

They will get you in touch with other parents who would like childcare.

Oh, WOW! That is SO AWESOME. Now we can all commiserate on how freaking difficult it is to organize short-term childcare in a city you know nothing about.

You know what would be more awesome? If the conference organizers recognized that on-site childcare is SUPER HELPFUL (always, but especially) during conferences. And then provided it.
Mommy, this presentation is horrible! They have no error bars! Waaaaaaaah!!!

Here are the main reasons on-site childcare is helpful (to me – there may be others):

1.     Reduces the stress level of the parents if they can
a.     Check on their kids easily and often. Particularly helpful when they have had 0 time to vet the childcare providers ahead of time.
b.     Be fetched easily if there is a problem with their child.
c.     Not have to arrange their own independent childcare, which always requires significant time and worry.
d.     Not be forced to just bring their kids along to sessions, which is not really very fun for anyone.
2.     Allows mothers to breastfeed more easily
3.     Is likely more affordable than hiring a nanny or babysitter for the week
4.     Is likely more affordable than flying a relative over to the conference to help babysit
5.     Affordability is particularly important to support early career scientists, single parents, and attendees from the developing world

So, conferences should provide childcare. This would significantly improve the ability of parents (of young kids especially) to participate. Look, Forbes agrees with me! And Science Mag pointed out that no conference childcare is a barrier to entry back in 2003.

There are even companies that specialize in conference childcare!

Other conferences provide childcare, like Fall AGU, Ocean Sciences, Society for Marine Mammalogy, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, etc. So, ICRS needs to get with the program.
Babies may not be helpful at the ICRS conference itself, but they are good at testing fossil corals for chewability post-conference

Ok, let's say there is some really good reason they can't provide on-site childcare. What are some other things they could do? 

1.     In the very, very least, they could do some of the legwork and call around to some local childcare places to find out if they take kids short-term. When I visited University of Queensland for a week, I was able to find a week-long slot for my kid at a nearby center*. Even if they don't want to do the calling around, they could compile a list of contact phone numbers.
2.     They could find some contacts for local childcare agencies and publish these on the website. 
3.     They could offer a room at the conference for families to use as a temporary daycare facility on site. This way we could either work out ways to trade off watching kids, or hire a nanny to watch the kids on site. This would be more expensive and more work for us than on-site childcare, of course, but would provide some of the on-site benefits I mentioned above.

Can you think of other ways that conference organizers could make things better for people who must bring their kids along?

*The center turned out to be terrible, unfortunately, so I pulled my kid out after 2 days and he came with me to the lab. Sigh.


  1. I agree that this is ridiculous. Do we really have to guess why young women drop out of science? No...we don't, cause its pretty obvious that there is a lack of consideration for working moms. I'm so glad that you wrote this. As for Hawaii, Andrew and I went to Ocean Sciences after Flynn was born and we did the parent thing. Andrew's parents took care of him during the days and brought him to the conference during the session breaks so I could nurse him. There was a "family room" but at one point some very rude scientists felt that it was a nice place to have their meetings, and so the about we all just nursed and fed the little ones right in front of them. Some women even were pumping in that room. I tried to get Flynn to be as loud as possible. :)

    On another note, maybe talk to Katie Barott and Byron about options. Sorry you have to deal with this. ICRS should have stepped up.

  2. Having worked at a resort hotel we used to offer day camp for children, but the liability insurance got so ridiculous the company had to shut it down. So with conferences, and I planned a few, when we wanted to have day care for the children the liability insurance was beyond stupid. It made it unaffordable for the attendees. Something has to change though and soon.

    1. That makes sense - this conference now is offering some options for childcare (not on site), but it is incredibly expensive - about 3x what I can afford. Frustrating!