A reckless proposal, or "Scientists are people too, and it's time we started treating them that way."

After my experiences a few weeks ago, and the ensuing discussion, I haven't been able to get the topic of childcare and professional travel out of my head. So here's a reckless proposal on the topic.

For everybody:

1) We need to recognize that to be successful, scientists, engineers, or academics need to engage in some amount of overnight travel to professional conferences, workshops, short courses, etc. Sure you might be able to go a year or two or even three without leaving your hometown, but at some point, in order to be successful at your current job or to advance professionally, you are going to need to go somewhere else overnight. I doubt that there are many tenured professors out there who have never gone out of town to go to a conference to present their work.

2) We also need to recognize that scientists, engineers, and academics are people. They have families: parents, siblings, children, significant others, or pets. Very rare are the people who manage to go their whole lives without any of the above. Furthermore, I'll wager that many scientists, engineers, and academics actually care about their families and want to be part of their families' lives. Heck, some scientists, engineers, and academics may even have to be the primary caregiver for a family member, be they an elderly parent, a disabled sibling, or a toddler. And, crazy as it may sound, some scientists, engineers, and academics, may not have supportive and flexible spouses/parents/siblings who can step in and take over those child/elder/nursing/pet responsibilities when the primary caregiver has to travel for work. (Reckless, I warned you!)

Below the jump, specific recommendations for employers, conference organizers, and the rest of us.

For organizations that employ scientists, engineers, or academics:

The employer should pay for the extra child/elder/pet care costs incurred as a result of travel that is a normal part of the professional responsibilities of the employees.

The employer should leave it to your employee how to best make arrangements for their situation, but the following three scenarios might cover most cases.

  1. Child/elder/sibling/spouse/pet stays home while employee travels, but additional costs are incurred (e.g., full-time rather than part-time daycare, evening babysitter, or pet sitter). The employer should reimburse the employee those expenses.(I haven't done this yet, but I am planning to do go to conference sans toddler in December.)
  2. Child travels with the employee and partakes in on-site childcare. The employer should reimburse the employee those expenses. (Note: With the support of my chair, I tried to submit receipts for conference childcare last fall - they were rejected by the university administration.)
  3. Child travels with employee and is cared for by a relative or nanny who also travels with the employee and child. The employer should cover at least the costs of plane/train/bus tickets or gas for the caregiver. (Note: This was my situation at the last workshop. It worked fairly well, except the day that the caregiver got food poisoning.)

I'm guessing that, based on my experiences, the costs to the employer would be $500 or less per conference and that the benefit could be limited to two or three trips per year (or a fixed $ amount). Yet, the employer would end up with a significantly happier, less stressed, and more professionally productive scientist, engineer, or academic.

For conference/workshop/short course organizers:

For the rest of us:

  • Don't be afraid to ask your employer or conference organizer if you need help making arrangements for (or covering the costs of) child/elder/sibling/spouse/pet care. Nothing will ever change unless employers and conference organizers know that we need them to change.
  • Don't assume that it's only moms with small children who face these issues. How about involved dads, parents of school-age children, men and women with a parent who depends on them, etc?
  • If you are an unencumbered conference participant, let the organizers know that you appreciate their efforts to accommodate those with family responsibilities.
  • If you see someone at a conference juggling a toddler and a laptop, offer to help entertain the child while s/he finishes the talk or hold the laptop while s/he fills her coffee cup, etc. S/he may refuse your help, but the offer is still genuinely appreciated.

Anything I missed? What would you suggest?

More like this

Fantastic ideas. (You should send this to the organization for women -ologists - I bet they would publish it in their newsletter.)

I wonder if that organization could write a grant to somehow push organizations to start doing this, actually? (At the very least, to provide childcare for early career workshops - yes, it's much broader than childcare, but it should be easy to make the case that loss of access to mentoring reduces the chances of success for women scientists.)

My institution, unfortunately, doesn't even cover the full costs of attending professional meetings. (We get maybe $200 per year for travel, which is half the cost of plane ticket to anywhere from here.) We're still fighting to get a proposed family leave policy implemented. (A full semester of paid leave, without having to promise to make it up by teaching summer classes without reimbursement. And to have the policy extended to include fathers, same-sex couples, adoptions, elder care, etc.) But at the very least, we need to allow internal professional development grants to cover child care (or elder care, or so forth).

I know of one woman who, when she got a MacArthur Fellowship, used some of the money to pay for child care. It would be nice if women who weren't already recognized as being geniuses had that option.

I would love to have on-site child care at conferences. My husband and I would like to go to some of the same conferences (since we're in the same field), but we usually end up trying to wrangle one of the grandma's into watching kids while we're gone. I always feel like I'm pushing off a lot of responsibility on them. (The kids love it, though.) It would be nice to go to a conference, have child care during the day, and then enjoy sight-seeing events in the evenings as a family. So many of the other conference attendees can do this because their families come along (and there are activities for family members of conference attendees), but there isn't much if both of you want to go to the conference. (In fact it's so uncommon that the wife of a couple attend the conference that I was asked how I enjoyed all the family activities they'd planned, completely ignoring the fact that I had a big red ribbon that identified me as a speaker at that conference.)

Thanks for including pet care as a list of responsibilities that academics sometimes have! Granted, pets can be much easier to coordinate than dependent person care, but the expenses still add up. It can be in the hundreds of dollars a year, particularly if pet needs medication or significant interaction.

Another thing about small children: compliment parents when children are well-behaved for a child's age. Sure, a toddler might squawk occasionally but if you see a solid parent-child partnership happening, give a compliment! I do this a lot on plane trips. If I try to find a reason to compliment a small child for something, it generally puts me in a better mood about the challenging situation. If a kid acts up and the parent needs to remove them from the room, saying something like "I'm sorry you had to miss some of the session; would you like to see the notes I took from the speakers?" can be warmly received indeed.

Fantastic list.

I'm currently traveling for my work. I sent my daughter a card for her 6th birthday tomorrow, which I will miss. :(

My needs as a parent vary based on the location and size of the conference. When traveling over night (or longer), I also require a freezer for storing pumped milk. I've often juggled this, especially when I have to check out of my room, spend a day attending talks, and then get on a plane.

I have made half hearted attempts to get my university to pay part of the expenses for my husband to come along to a conference, for additional daycare on site, and other expenses. My requests generally have been considered with scorn. A lot of people clearly don't realize the fact that I still pay for daycare even if my son isn't there. So when I pay for care at a conference, I'm paying double.

Other "family friendly" issues include scheduling conferences that recognize the school year or other family events. (One conference I attend had generally straddled father's day and it was moved for subsequent years in response to the request.) The vogue in my field seems to be scheduling evening sessions while leaving the afternoon off. This is very difficult to handle with child care and grumpy, jet lagged kids.

So, I would suggest that you add "get involved in the planning and speak up" about the schedule and arrangements.

You have stated it very well. I know many professors (male and female) whom would be more than happy to pay an extra couple dollars in conference fees to cover the cost of childcare at a conference. Both child and childless PI's support this idea

A slightly related question:

When a young woman in on the academic track (that is to say acquiring MS, Ph.D., working as a post doc, and eventually professor) when is it perceived as okay to think of having children? At what stage in your early career is getting pregnant, taking time off, and generally being a bit more distracted acceptable?

I've known few graduate students who've had babies while working towards their degree. In my limited observations I'd say that it was frowned upon for the female graduate student to start a family during gradschool, but considered sweet and endearing for the male grad student. I've only ever known one female postdoc and family was far from her mind and I've never known any young female professors. Obviously it's been difficult to get a idea of the general feeling towards the issue, and not exacting something you can ask of your own professors and expect to get a honest answer.

Great ideas. But it would be hard to see that happening when many institutions who make claims about their good research environment are simply not funding employee travel. I'm in a much less teaching-oriented institution than Kim, but I get a small amount of travel funding which just about takes me to one in-UK or cheap European conference. No chance of getting to the US or Canada, or anywhere more exotic, without scoring substantial external funding. And yet we are required to attend a certain numnber of conferences...

The thing that REALLY bugs me is that I always have to pay for everything on my credit card and then claim after travelling... and if things go well they reimburse me a couple of months later... almost always after the credit card bill has come due. I'm lucky, Senior Lecturer pay scale and single-with-cat, so I can usually juggle this, but it's incredibly hard for some junior colleagues especially if there is a stay-at-home spouse and young children dependent on the one salary...

Preface: I'm a single mom.

I've been lucky enough to find day care at my travel locations; I'm still paying double for day care, though. Thankfully my child doesn't mind the travel (too much). There's not a chance in a million that my employer would provide any reimbursement for this. I'm lucky enough to be able to get reimbursed for half the normal mileage rate for using my own vehicle (family members not allowed in company car).

The hardest for me are the actual day care hours when I need to do field work several hours away or have evening meetings. Babysitting on the fly, as my schedule is unpredictable, is not an option. I often warn people that I must schlep my 4-yr-old along if I'm to attend an evening or weekend meeting. On occasion, I think about moving back to where her father lives to assist in these dilemmas. I then remind myself that his field hours (12+hour days most weeks) are much worse than mine and I would be at limited to no advantage.

I reckon a lot of these problems could be solved by just giving people more annual leave- that way, if a day care situation comes up, you just have the hubby take a day off (that's what we do).

Attaching lots of conditions and complications for the employers will just give them incentives to not hire people with children.

Lab lemming: More annual leave would be fantastic, but it wouldn't solve the problem for single moms or for people who's spouse is disabled, for example. And it doesn't address the underlying issue that our jobs are basically giving us an un(der)funded mandate to travel, yet there aren't the resources to make it really possible for those with family responsibilities to do the travel.

I attended a planning meeting for an upcoming conference and made a point to ask the organizers to look into childcare options. I was amazed that it hadn't occured to either of the lead women, at least one of whom has small children who she has brought to meetings!

I'm sorry, but I really do not think I would ever feel comfortable leaving my small children with complete strangers at a conference. A job like this requires a village, and you need to cultivate a network of family and friends that you trust to help you with these sorts of situations.

Mistressofscience - there's no silver bullet answer to your question regarding the optimal time. It depends on too many variables. Do what feels right for you. But since you asked - I waited until I was 3-4 years into my t-t job figuring that by that time, I had enough publications in the pipeline to satisfy the P&T committee. It worked for me (but by the time I had kids I was 32 and had gone through two miscarriages)

By Female Enginee… (not verified) on 11 Aug 2008 #permalink

Tt would be a dream come true if employers would pay for a nanny to fly along to all my meetings (although we have never had a nanny to bring along). But they wont. They cant. The university doents even have funds for my travel, I charge it to my grants. The granting agencies wont pay for family travel either. I doubt many taxpayers would go for it.

So in light of the lack of this kind of travel budget by my employer, I try to bring my parents or husband or friend a long to meetings. It gets expensive and it takes a lot of their time, but that is all I can do at this point. A few times the hosts have offered to pay for a room for my parents. The excellent side of all this is that now that kids are 7 and 9, they are enjoying the travel and I think benefiting from it in many ways. So I figure although it is costly it is a good investment in their education.