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Conferences with Kids: A Hidden Cost for Academic Mothers

I remember attending conferences as a child-free PhD student. I’d fully commit myself to every session; I’d have meaningful conversations with people at lunch; I’d stay out late talking science (and other things!) with my colleagues at night. Conferences were the highlight of the academic year. They were an exciting holiday from which I would return refreshed and inspired.

It’s been a few years since those days and now, I’m post-doctorate with a toddler. Some things remain the same: I still get inspired by the talks and connections I make at these events. I still relish the opportunity to present my work to the public. However, conferences are no longer a holiday, nor are they the academic social highlight of my year. They now have a cost (and not just because I’m no longer eligible for student registration!).

When I first had a baby, I was unemployed—I’d just completed my PhD. I desperately wanted to connect with fellow researchers like I had before having a baby. I decided that I was a competent academic mum; I convinced myself I could attend a conference in a different state, give a presentation and run a workshop at the conference … with my four-month-old in tow.

I popped him in his carrier and I walked around until he slept. I popped out of sessions to change his nappy. I handed him over to my mum for an hour, while I ran my workshop.

I was right: I could do it! However, suddenly conferences weren’t fun anymore. The conversations I had at lunch were about how blond my son’s hair was and how much I was sleeping at night.

For my next conference, I tried taking both my husband and baby. As this was a four-day event, I was lucky that my husband’s job was flexible enough for him to come along. The days were great; I attended all the sessions and even met a few new people at lunch. However, the second that the program finished for the day, I rushed back to my Airbnb to take over from my exhausted husband who had been entertaining our son in a stranger’s house with none of our familiar comforts.

As a result, I missed out on the evenings (beers and dinners), wherein the best networks and friendships develop. On the second night, the baby was up all night screaming with a fever. We had to work out whether the regional town in which we were staying had an emergency room and whether we wanted to brave it. After that ordeal, I began to wonder if it was worth the effort of going to conferences at all.

For my third conference attempt, I was invited to give a talk. It was interstate, but only three days long. This time, I went alone.

It was great! I was almost back to my pre-baby enjoyment of events, except for the small nagging guilt of leaving my husband to sole-parent a teething baby. I was very grateful that my husband was able to stay home, enabling me to go.

However, the next conference I wanted to attend fell on the days that my child would normally be at home with me. My husband couldn’t take the time off to stay at home with the baby. I let that one go … and the next one. We don’t have family nearby and I felt it was unfair to ask for my husband to solo-parent for extended periods.

I realised that there are many ways that a woman’s productivity is slowed by having children. Some of these costs—like my limited ability to attend conferences—are often not recognised as barriers to women’s success in the field.

There are things that we can do to mitigate or minimise these costs. I recently saw that a conference in Europe had free child care for all registered participants. I understand that this isn’t feasible at all conferences, but the recognition that child care services should be made available to participants has given me hope.

There are also a range of grants that include money for child care, or money to pay for the travel of a supporting person, such as Capstone Editing’s Carer’s Travel Grant for Academic Women. It’s wonderful to think that mothers will be able to contribute to conferences because of these initiatives. The inclusion of child care in conference registration packages and extra university funding for primary carers would be a significant step towards levelling the gender imbalance in academia.

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