As a busy scientist with two young children, one of Rebecca Calisi’s most vexing challenges is figuring out how to attend scientific conferences without a huge disruption in family life. Bringing children to conferences is an option, but not all are especially welcoming to the needs of families, especially to mothers with young children.
Calisi, a behavioural neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, and a group of 45 other scientist-parents, have turned their frustrations into a call for action. In a paper published online Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers detail the shortcomings of past conferences and offer a blueprint for making conferences more welcoming and accessible to parents of young children.
By not providing accommodations for children, Calisi says, conferences can unintentionally create barriers that exclude large swaths of scientists—especially early-career scientist-mothers who may not be able to afford childcare. “One part of promoting diversity is supporting women with children,” Calisi says. “If institutions say they want to support diversity, they should put their money where there mouth is.”
In the paper, Calisi and co-authors suggest that conferences could fund on-site childcare services, lactation rooms and other amenities by asking for voluntary donations during registration. Exhibitors who make a donation could receive a sign or emblem that show their support. “I guarantee you they would get more foot traffic,” Calisi tells Nature. The paper also calls for all conferences to clearly state that parents are allowed to bring babies to talks and poster sessions. For now, she says, rules about children seem to change from conference to conference and even from hour to hour. She notes that researchers with babies were recently turned away from a poster session at a large conference even though the official policy permitted children in the exhibit area.
A practical, comfortable space for breastfeeding or pumping breast milk is an especially important accommodation, Calisi says. “A lactation room tells you a lot about how much a [scientific] society values women,” she says. In November, she turned to Twitter to complain about the facilities at the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) annual meeting, held last year in Washington DC. Within hours of that tweet, the society provided more comfortable lounge chairs for mothers. “It’s not that the society was anti-women,” she says. “They just didn’t know.”
SfN, for its part, aims to become more inclusive. “The society is actively exploring ways to continue to enhance the spaces for nursing mothers in San Diego [California] this year and at SfN’s future meetings,” says society spokesperson Kara Flynn in a statement to Nature. She adds that the society is committed to “fostering a welcome and diverse community in which all scientists are able to contribute fully.”
Some conferences are already parent-friendly, Calisi says. She recently attended the annual meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement in Science in Austin, Texas, where the lactation room was comfortable and easily accessible. “I gave them two thumbs up,” she says.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.