On Kids and Conferences

Kate had to leave at 7am this morning to go to a “retreat” for her office, so I took the kids to Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast. That got us all out the door at the same time, avoiding the freakout from The Pip if he saw Mommy leave without him. Kate will be late getting home tonight, as well, so I’ve got dinner with the kids as well, and SteelyKid has already declared that she wants to go to the Irish pub downtown for sweet potato fries and fish & chips.

I mention this not because I want to fill the blog with trivial details of my personal life– that’s what Twitter is for– but because it struck me as funny to be doing this today, when there’s discussion all over the science-y Interwebs about this paper showing that women are more likely to decline speaking invitations than men. Specifically, they found:

Although 23% of all initially invited speakers (including those that declined) were women, only 15% of the realized invited speakers were women. This reduction was because 50% of invited women declined talks compared to 26% of invited men.

The fraction of invitations extended to women was not wildly out of line with the fraction of women at the career stages likely to be invited to give talks at major meetings, but the refusal rate difference meant that the actual distribution of speakers skewed heavily male. This has prompted a lot of discussion of why, exactly, this would be; the specific discussion that prompted this post is at Athene Donald’s blog (which in turn links to another post she wrote for the Royal Society’s blogs).

The potential reason for refusal that’s getting the most attention is the issue of child care. Donald puts it pretty well at the Royal Society blog:

For many women, small children may be felt to be a significant barrier to travel. It might be reasonable to query why this is more of a problem for women than for men, but the reality is that the expectation of society (if not of the individual couple) remains that childcare is primarily the mother’s problem. So, while we are waiting for society to catch up, perhaps the conference organisers can be a bit more proactive about finding additional funds to facilitate childcare at the venue or (along the lines of the action I mentioned in an earlier post that my university is already doing) funding travel for some child-minder – relative or employee – to accompany the woman they have invited.

This struck me as interesting in large part because, as I said at the top of this post, I’m currently dealing with a very minor instance of Kate traveling for work. And while we can make that work, it does involve a significant amount of disruption– Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast, and fish & chips for dinner. And I’ll get some strange looks at both places, a mix of the “Awww, how cute” that any man taking care of kids in public gets, plus a bit of “What an asshole.” Skewing more toward “What an asshole” tonight when I take them to a bar for dinner. But, you know, you do what you need to do to make things work.

Today is, as I said, a minor example of Kate traveling for work, not involving an overnight trip. But we’ve done those as well, and it works out, more or less. Due to the nature of our jobs, travel-related solo child-care falls more heavily on Kate– I’m more likely to go away for several days at a stretch to attend a conference or give a talk, while her travel tends to be shorter trips to one court or another for five minutes of oral argument– and I’m acutely aware of that. Especially since I have a gift for scheduling travel on weeks when one or both of the kids come down with something. But we’re very lucky to have family close by who are willing to help out- my parents live about two hours away, are both retired, and are very happy to have the kids come to visit. It could be much, much worse.

Still, it’s a drag on our professional mobility, as it were. I can’t say I’ve turned down any invitations because of the kids, but I’ve certainly been less proactive about trying to arrange invitations. I’ve rotated off the APS committee I was on, and dithered for a long time when I was asked to stand for election to another (I eventually said yes, and lost, which was fine). I went to Science Online for the first time only this year, and will probably be dropping Boskone off my annual appearances in the future, both (in part) because I’m trying to limit my out-of-town travel these days.

As for the proposed solution, like some of the commenters at Donald’s blog, I can’t say I find the thought of dragging kids along to a conference all that attractive. Air travel is annoying enough without adding child-herding to the mix, and if I’m going to go somewhere with the kids, I’d prefer to do something with them, not dump them with day care while I do work. Also, the expense of this is not inconsiderable, particularly when air travel is involved (a somewhat cheaper alternative might be funding to provide for a sitter/ nanny sort of arrangement at the speaker’s home, rather than dragging kids and child care along to a meeting).

Of course, the root problem here is that, as Donald notes, child care expectations fall more heavily on women than men. The real crucial point, from my perspective at least, is made in her comments, by “Th”:

One of the big barriers I think is the imbalance in how childcare/family responsibilities are perceived by employers. Both I and my husband travel a lot for work, but he is never asked by peers or managers what the impact will be on his family. He is assumed to be available for evening meetings, travel abroad etc. If he suggests that this could be incompatible with our family life, eyebrows are raised. When he works short days to cover for me when I’m away, eyebrows have been raised. So it’s not about my partner or my employer, it’s about *his* employers and the attitude of his peers.

This is an important and often overlooked aspect to the problem. The social expectation is that child care is a women’s issue, but this ends up affecting both genders in a way that makes it harder for either. You can’t solve the problem of it being difficult for women to not be constrained by child care without also addressing the problem of it being difficult for men who do want to do child care. Somebody’s got to be taking care of the kids, after all.

And as Th notes, and I’ve said before, attitudes toward men and family are also a problem. While senior faculty and managers are not necessarily as flexible as would be ideal when it comes to cutting women slack for family responsibilities, they at least tend to be grudgingly aware of a legal obligation to not be overtly dickish about it. Men who attempt to step back from work and career to spend time with family get a fair bit of skepticism and are sometimes openly regarded as aberrant.

That doesn’t obviate the need for measures to reduce the burden on women, but it is a significant obstacle to the success of those measures. Again, somebody has to be watching the kids, and that most likely has to be one of the parents. If we want to make it easier for mothers to travel for the promotion of their careers, we need to simultaneously (in some frame of reference, anyway) make it easier and more socially acceptable for fathers to pick up the slack.

Child care isn’t the only issue involved in the paper that kicked this off, of course, just the one that’s most on my mind. I also suspect that it’s the trickiest to solve, though– the other big factors are an Impostor Syndrome-ish problem with women being less likely to put themselves forward, and a problem of the smallish number of prominent women being overburdened with talk requests. The former is a long-standing issue, and something that ought to be addressable in a fairly targeted manner– mentoring, workshops, etc. The latter seems like it ought to be a solved problem– the big-name women who are turning down excess invitations because they’re too busy ought to be passing those on to other, less busy, women– but there may be structural/cultural reasons why this wouldn’t work(*). Addressing the child-care issue requires a much broader change, including change on the part of people who are not themselves being invited to these meetings. That’s the very definition of a Hard Problem.

(* – As a post-doc, I gave two invited talks at meetings in Europe, both of them at conferences that had invited my boss, who disliked conference travel, and sent me in his stead. At one of those, I was a late enough substitution that his name was in the meeting program, not mine. I also gave an invited talk as a grad student at the APS’s Centennial Meeting in Atlanta, where again, they first invited my supervisor, who was invited to give two different talks, and by rule could only accept one, so he passed it on to me. This is not uncommon in (my field of) physics– I see a lot of invited talks at big meetings given by the post-docs and even grad students of prominent people, and as far as I know, the usual procedure is that the big-name PI gets invited, and passes it on to the junior person. The paper that kicked all this off deals with biology, though, and I’m not familiar with the norms there. It might be that conference organizers in that field are more likely to insist on having more senior people as invited speakers, and when they get turned down by one of the handful of overworked women in the field, move on to invite an equally prominent man. Or it may be that the field is more cut-throat, and PI’s are less likely to promote their students and post-docs in this way. Which sounds kind of pathological to me, but maybe biologists are just assholes that way.)

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    June 25, 2013

    At least you and Kate are in different fields, so it is less likely that both of you would need to travel for work during the same week (and as you said, you have grandparents nearby to cover for you if that ever does happen). I have been told that a plurality of the men who are married to Ph.D. physicists are themselves Ph.D. physicists, and the couples I know where she is in my field are consistent with that claim (whence the “two-body problem”). Child care gets much trickier when both spouses are expected to travel to the same meetings, especially once the kids are school age, and even more so if for any reason the grandparents can’t easily travel to where the couple lives.

  2. #2 OMF
    June 25, 2013

    This struck me as interesting in large part because, as I said at the top of this post, I’m currently dealing with a very minor instance of Kate traveling for work. And while we can make that work, it does involve a significant amount of disruption– Dunkin’ Donuts for breakfast, and fish & chips for dinner.

    I can’t figure out whether you’re being amazingly brave admitting this, or amazingly oblivious.

    Come on. It’s been 30 years since Kramer vs Kramer gave us the famous french toast scene, which by the way has lost a lot of its impact in the meantime. It is not unreasonable to expect a parent to be able to cook meals. In fact, it’s unreasonable to expect them not to be able.

    It’s time to take up cooking. We now expect weekly blog updates on your culinary explorations. Tradition dictates that you must start with french toast.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    June 25, 2013

    I’m perfectly capable of cooking, and in fact already do nearly all of the cooking at Chateau Steelypips. However, I find it less annoying to take the kids to a restaurant when I’ve got them solo. If nothing else, going out to a restaurant leads to less of The Pip wandering around plaintively saying “Ma-ma? Ma-ma?”

  4. #4 Kate Nepveu
    June 25, 2013

    In addition, as Chad clearly said in his post, the point of this morning was for us all to leave at the same time.

    (In case anyone doubted it, yes, he does in fact do 99% of the cooking.)

  5. #5 Ewan
    June 26, 2013

    “the paper that kicked all this off deals with biology, though, and I’m not familiar with the norms there. It might be that conference organizers in that field are more likely to insist on having more senior people as invited speakers, and when they get turned down by one of the handful of overworked women in the field, move on to invite an equally prominent man. Or it may be that the field is more cut-throat, and PI’s are less likely to promote their students and post-docs in this way. Which sounds kind of pathological to me, but maybe biologists are just assholes that way.)”

    No assholiness of this variety. For major invited speeches, yes, only the PI would be accepted. For panels, generally it would be the junior folk giving the talks in the first place.

    Our personal experience is that Jenny’s industry travel and/or extended days is in general on much (much! – i.e. sometimes zero) shorter notice, and hence more difficult to cover. Academic travel never happens like that. I confess that I’ve never had a single strange look when out with the kids, including when we went to the biergarten and they were throwing peanuts :).

  6. #6 Bee
    June 26, 2013

    Needless to say, we have this problem too as with the twins, who are now two-and-a-half. We’re about to start counting in integers ;) In our household, I’m the one doing most of the travel, and if we can’t work out the childcare solution, my husband ends up having to take vacation. Even so, having to take care of two kids that age the whole day is not always fun, for not to mention the nights. Babysitter is costly and not always available either (we need a second one). If I go on trips, I only do short things with a minimum of overnight stays. I frequently feel bad about this, esp at seminar invitations, but I’d feel worse putting more strain on the family.

    We’ve thought about doing conference trips all together, but really, just thinking about the logistics convinces us very quickly each time that it’s an even worse option, not to mention the expenses.

    As to the availability at after-work hours, it’s mostly my husband who does these meetings, but I’m not sure that’s because he’s expected to be available or if he just doesn’t want to say his wife will be grumpy for three days if he attends the dinner :p

    In any case, the childcare/travel-need tension is so common that I’m wondering why there isn’t more discussion about it.

    One way to address this issue without much expenses would be talks by video link. This requires some technical equipment and to do it well is a non-trivial task. But with presently available technology and some infrastructure improvement, it would be easily doable. Of course that doesn’t really replace conference attendance as one misses out on the socializing, etc, but it would greatly alleviate the lack-of-presence problem.

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    June 26, 2013

    Ewan: For major invited speeches, yes, only the PI would be accepted. For panels, generally it would be the junior folk giving the talks in the first place.

    That’s good to know. I’m kind of puzzled, though, about why so many people are saying “suggest other women as replacement speakers” as if that weren’t an obvious approach.

    The really puzzling thing, though, is that later comments at Athene Donald’s post suggest that the invited women aren’t so much declining the requests as just failing to respond at all. I find that baffling, not to mention kind of rude.

    Bee: One way to address this issue without much expenses would be talks by video link. This requires some technical equipment and to do it well is a non-trivial task. But with presently available technology and some infrastructure improvement, it would be easily doable. Of course that doesn’t really replace conference attendance as one misses out on the socializing, etc, but it would greatly alleviate the lack-of-presence problem.

    I haven’t seen that many remote presentations, but the few I have seen suggest the technology isn’t quite there yet in terms of reliability and interactivity. But it’s been a few years, so maybe the state of the art has advanced enough for it to work better.

    Even beyond the technical limits, though, the lack of informal interaction is a big problem. A large part of the reason for getting prominent people to your conference in the first place is so that people can talk to them face-to-face. When I took a student to a meeting that Bill Phillips was at, I made a point of introducing them, which the student found really cool. You can’t really do that with a remote speaker– Skyping with a Nobel laureate just doesn’t have the same cachet…

  8. #8 Eric Lund
    June 26, 2013

    A large part of the reason for getting prominent people to your conference in the first place is so that people can talk to them face-to-face. When I took a student to a meeting that Bill Phillips was at, I made a point of introducing them, which the student found really cool.

    Absolutely. One of the coolest things that can happen at a conference is when a young scientist meets an older scientist who as a young scientist published one or more papers highly relevant to the younger scientist’s work. I’ve been on both sides of that kind of thing. But it only works if you are meeting in person.

    At some conferences these days, certain high-profile talks are recorded for later (or real-time) streaming over the web. But those talks are still given in front of a live audience. The main reason remote presentations are so rare is the need for East African plains apes to interact socially. Which means that inability to travel for work is significantly career-limiting, especially for people who haven’t achieved Big Time PI status.

    There have been a couple of occasions on which I have filled in as an invited speaker for a collaborator who does not like to travel. I’ve also known of cases where an in-demand PI will farm out invitations to his postdocs on the grounds that he can’t do all of those invited talks himself. But my rule is that I am reluctant to turn down any invitations I do get–if I can find the travel budget to give an invited talk, I will.

  9. #9 dutchess
    Woods Hole
    June 28, 2013

    I am a mother and a grad student, albeit older than your usual grad school student in the US. i strongly STRONGLY agree there should be child care services in every international conference and this should be made clear to all participating scientists. especially with young toddlers, its impossible for me to go anywhere, for anything longer than 2 days.

  10. […] kids and business travel. I agree, the barrier for the mother to travel is likely to be at the father’s […]

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