I was recently at a conference that stated rather prominently, “For safety reasons, children under the age of 12 (including infants in carriers and strollers, or hand-carried infants and toddlers) are not permitted in the educational sessions, exhibit hall and poster session.”
Then a few weeks later, I attended another conference, where a young man was literally chased out of an exhibit hall for bringing his sleeping infant in past this comically unwelcoming sign:
I spoke with this young man, who explained that he needed to bring his child to the exhibit hall because he and his wife each had presentations and they needed to swap and breastfeed between sessions.
What were their other options? One of them skip attending the meeting? Skip a presentation? Wait outside? None of those seem particularly progressive.
Now for the life of me, I cannot fathom how children pose a safety risk in a poster session. Or why I couldn’t bring my two-year-old to an ice cream social in an exhibit hall. And whether or not it is intended that way, I translate policies like these as, “Families with children not welcome here.”
Conferences are an amazing opportunity for professionals to network and advance their science. Unfortunately, attending conferences comes at a steep price that discriminately targets mothers. Recently, Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, stated that he would no longer participate in “manels,” or expert panels composed entirely in men. This comes in the midst of a movement to increase the number of women, many of whom are mothers, in academic leadership. Encouraging mothers to attend conferences is an excellent step in promoting such diversity.
Conferences often mirror the priorities of our professional organizations. The language and actions, or inaction, of the conference can and likely does shape the culture within the entire profession. This built environment can either be harmful or helpful in building a culture of inclusivity and well-being. Harmful examples include venues that explicitly prohibit children or have expensive spouse or family participation fees. Helpful examples include having on-site, readily accessible pumping/nursing rooms, on-site and affordable high-quality childcare that is explicitly offered at the time of registration, offering family-friendly programming and networking events, and finally including photos of diverse families in promotional materials.
Now, I welcome the naysayers, “these conferences are not meant for children” or “I didn’t come to see cute babies.” We can all recall a time when a wild toddler or a really loud infant ruined our dinner, was really distracting during church, or simply ruined a good relaxing beer. But no matter how uncomfortable you felt, the parent of that child was shuddering in horror 10 times more. More often than not though, families with small children are already masters of sneaking out quickly and discretely prior to an all-out-melt down. And children aren’t the only disruption at a conference; consider pagers, surgeons completing Epic charting, loud chewers, and #SoMe. So the argument that children don’t belong at these conferences doesn’t quite hold up for me. People who choose to bring children to conferences do for several reasons, often including necessity. By systematically excluding mothers from participating in conferences, through both informal and formal events, we lose the opportunity promote these women in their careers.
I would like to be solution-focused here. Instead of banning children or making the built environment unwelcoming to surgeons with families, we could consider hosting conferences where children are actually welcome. Yes, children can be distracting, so let them children by having very affordable, or ideally free, childcare and child-friendly activities nearby. of the networking events could be an ice cream social for the entire family. We could reserve the last two rows of any session for people who may need to leave abruptly (e.g. those expecting a phone call, those on-call with pagers, and those with young children). This would force other attendees to actually sit near the front, so it is a win-win. There are tons of potential accommodations that our societies could make attending conferences with families easier.1,2
I encourage you to reflect for a moment. Have you ever not been able to attend a conference because of your caregiving responsibilities? Have you ever been made to feel particularly welcome or unwelcome at a conference? What do you think when you see a young surgeon with their children at a conference?
Clearly further research is needed to determine which strategies are feasible and helpful. I welcome any potential collaborations to study the exclusion of parents from conferences.
- Calisi RM, a Working Group of Mothers in Science. Opinion: How to tackle the childcare-conference conundrum. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2018;115(12):2845-2849. doi:10.1073/pnas.1803153115
- Conferences should be more family friendly for women scholars with children (opinion). https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/02/07/conferences-should-be-more-family-friendly-women-scholars-children-opinion. Accessed July 9, 2019.