I am an assistant professor and mother of a two-year old. We recently returned from traveling together for our third conference. Despite enormous support from my partner and family, each trip I come back wondering if it was worth all the logistical and financial challenges. Last year, after returning from the same conference with the same sentiment, I joined a working group of mothers in science and we wrote a piece with suggestions for how conferences can better support parents, especially women1. Here I provide a bit more context for what some of these challenges are, and insight into what considerations an academic parent is likely to need to make when traveling with their child(ren). I will focus on the logistical and financial challenges, although there are certainly physical, social, and emotional challenges as well, which have already been described by others more eloquently than I could2,3.
The Decision – should you go, and should you bring your kids?
Deciding whether or not to attend a conference always involves a careful calculus of weighing options. Does the chance to disseminate your research, get feedback, meet colleagues, start collaborations, and engage in networking outweigh the time away and cost? This choice can be particularly challenging for early career investigators for whom gaining visibility is critical, with some institutions even having requirements for conference attendance associated with promotion, but for whom conference travel may mean dipping into a limited start-up fund or time away from a fledgling laboratory. If you are a parent, the decision is even more complicated.
The first choice you need to make when navigating conference attendance as a parent is if you will bring your child(ren) or leave them at home. For some parents, especially ones who are not primary caregivers or who have family or other caregivers nearby, leaving children home may be the most obvious and easiest decision. For others, for example single parents, breastfeeding mothers, parents of infants and toddlers or children with a disability, parents who share caregiving with another working spouse, or parents whose partner is in the same field and attends the same conference, leaving children at home may be challenging or impossible. There also may be parents who simply don’t want to spend that much time away from their children. After all, our jobs are demanding and navigating the work-life juggle is hard enough during daily life – travel can really throw off the balance.
This is a very personal decision, and I think there are great reasons for choosing to bring your child or choosing not to. Regardless, it is important to remember that only certain academics, most often women, are put in a position to have to make this choice, so making either option as easy as possible is a critical step towards gender equity in STEM fields.
Logistics of traveling with a child
If you are bringing your child to a conference, the basic logistics (flights, hotel, transportation, and meals) become more complicated, and childcare is an additional concern. Below I discuss some considerations for each.
- Childcare – For conferences that are child-friendly, depending on you and your child’s preferences/temperament, it may be possible to wear or stroll young infants through a conference center, and older children may be able to entertain themselves quietly during presentations. However, this may not be practical for all children, and so many parents find they need to arrange child care for all or part of the conference. Some child-friendly conferences have on-site childcare, which can be a great option. Unfortunately, it can also be expensive4, and in many cases, fees associated with this will not be reimbursed5. At a conference I recently attended childcare was $100/day per child – well over the cost of conference registration for attendees. Also, provided childcare will likely not have hours that extend into evenings, meaning you will have to skip evening sessions or dinners. The other option would be to bring a caregiver with you, perhaps a family member, babysitter, or nanny. This can work great (it is what I have done with my daughter), but of course, it only works if you are lucky enough to have such a person who can accompany you. This can be particularly challenging since conferences often happen mid-week meaning potential caregivers need to have schedule flexibility. It also means that the caregiver’s travel costs will have to be paid for, often by you. Which brings us to the next topic – flights.
- Flights – If your child is under 2 and you are traveling domestically, you may be able to avoid buying an additional ticket by holding them on your lap. This is a huge financial savings, although it does come with drawbacks (say goodbye to finishing up your presentation on the plane – even if your kiddo falls asleep, one-handed typing is infuriatingly inefficient, not to mention uncomfortable.) Otherwise, you will need to buy a ticket for your child. If you also need to purchase flights for a caregiver, flight costs can really add up. Additionally, bringing a child often involves additional schedule considerations. Depending on your child, red-eyes and tight connections may be a terrible idea. You may also want to avoid very early or very late flights, or want to try to time flights with naps. Overall, your flexibility may be impacted– which may mean that you will end up spending more to get the flights you need. This can be challenging since, in most cases, your child and/or caregiver’s flight will not be reimbursed5.
- Transportation at Destination – This issue is very city specific. For cities with good public transit, you can take your child on buses/trains/subways, which may be a fun adventure for your child. It may mean buying an extra ticket or two for a caregiver and/or child (depending on their age), but likely would not add a huge expense. Cities that do not have reliable public transportation are more difficult. You may be forced to choose between renting a car (which may not be reimbursed depending on institutional rules/guidelines) or taking taxis/Ubers/Lyfts. The later can work well for traveling with older children, but anyone who has dealt with trying to install a car seat in an unfamiliar car, especially with a grumpy cab driver watching you, and angry traffic surrounding you, knows that this is a great way to raise your blood pressure and probably make some enemies.
- Accommodations and Food – First, keep in mind that whereas other conference attendees wishing to save money may be able to share rooms to reduce the cost, this likely will not be an option if you are traveling with children. So, you will likely be paying more. On the other hand, not having a roommate may give you more flexibility when choosing where to stay. Many conferences have a designated conference hotel. This can be a good option for children, since these hotels are usually the most convenient and may allow you flexibility to drop in and out of sessions. However, conference hotels are often not particularly family-friendly. Hotel rooms can also be small and painfully boring to spend long periods of time in. If you are traveling with children, you will likely be spending more time in the room – so keep that in mind when you book your stay. Also, remember that in a standard hotel room you may end up sitting in the dark for a few hours after your child goes to sleep. This may be particularly frustrating if you know you are missing out on networking events, collaborator meetings, or social gatherings. A standard hotel room may also not have enough space if you are bringing along a caregiver, meaning you would likely need a second room (which would probably not be reimbursed). Finally, many children require an endless supply of snacks. For some children, dining out exclusively may be a viable option, but for others, waiting to get their food at every meal is a recipe for disaster, and in any case, eating out frequently can get expensive. So, you will likely want to have snacks on hand, which may require a kitchenette or at least a refrigerator. All this may lead you to consider staying at an extended stay hotel or a condo/apartment/Airbnb. These options are great since they typically include a kitchen/kitchenette, a separate living space, and perhaps a second bedroom for a caregiver. The extra space would not only prevent being stuck in a dark room after your child goes to sleep – it may even allow a post-bedtime meeting or social meet-up, if your colleagues are willing to come to you. However, there are negatives too. First, keep in mind cost. Even if these options are less expensive than the conference hotel (and often they are) you may run into trouble with reimbursement since US government guidelines (which many universities – especially public universities – have to follow) will only reimburse at the federal (per diem) rate unless you stay at the conference hotel. Often these rates are impractically low, especially for expensive cities6. This means that even if you are saving money by not staying in the conference hotel, you personally could end up paying more, due to federal guidelines. Another consideration is that these accommodations may be further away from the conference center, meaning you may have less flexibility to come and go and may miss out on more conference opportunities.
I do not want give the impression that it is all negative. Attending conferences with your child has its benefits. You get to experience new places with your child, give them a taste of your awesome job, and help normalize parenthood in academia to build a more inclusive future. However, for many parents, choosing to attend conferences can feel like they are giving much more (financially and otherwise) for what will most likely be a watered-down version of the conference. It is easy to see why some parents may decide to just skip conference travel all together. Between flights for children/caregivers, possible childcare fees, additional hotel fees, maybe a rental car, and potentially food costs, the conference may cost twice (or more) what it would be for a single person, and based on many institutional and funding agency policies, many portions would not be reimbursable. With the time between graduate school and obtaining tenure growing, many academic parents are early career researchers: graduate students, postdocs, or assistant professors, who often have limited financial resources. In short, the cost and flexibility required for traveling with children is incompatible with the rigid guidelines for reimbursement put in place by the universities, funding agencies, and the federal government. This stacks the deck against academic parents, and in practice, disproportionately affects women, since, due to biology, cultural and societal norms, women are more often put in a position where they have to choose to bring their child with them, or not travel at all. These same considerations are further compounded for academics with limited financial resources meaning that some of the groups most vulnerable and under-represented in academia are most impacted.
I feel like this is where I should give advice on how to gracefully navigate these challenges and succeed. But I do not have these answers. Besides giving yourself space for self-care and attending conferences that support you, I do not have a game-changing suggestion that will solve the challenges of traveling to conferences with small children. But I don’t think I should have to. The burden shouldn’t be on parents to figure out how to survive in a culture that clearly was not been built for them. It is time to change the culture.
Some may disagree and argue that if we have made the “choice” to be an academic parent, we should deal with the challenges. I would argue, though, that for funding agencies and universities who have taken the stance that increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion matters to them (and there are many reasons it should7)– the fact that the current structure creates a logistical and financial burden which falls primarily on already under-represented groups – should give pause.
Fortunately, small things can be done to help. These include making conferences more family-friendly, offering travel grants to help defray costs, and changing the ways that conference and other work-related travel are reimbursed. Specifically, conferences can include free or subsidized child care and family-friendly spaces1,4,8, universities can provide travel grants to parents to cover additional costs of work-related travel with children8, and funding agencies can offer similar grants or at least make work-related dependent travel (and travel-related childcare) reimbursable, similar to how conference/work-travel is covered for individuals*. Additionally, rules for allowable expenses could be adjusted to help accommodate traveling with children; for example, loosening restrictions on hotel reimbursement or ground transportation. Such changes would be relatively inexpensive, but could make a huge difference in how achievable conference travel is for parents, making academia an overall more welcoming and inclusive place.
*This point does have the disadvantage of depleting grant funds, which could have the ultimate consequence of disincentivizing conference attendance, making it the least attractive option. However, at the very least, this option shifts the financial burden from personal to professional funds, which is especially important for trainees/early career researchers.
1 Calisi, R. M. & a Working Group of Mothers in, S. Opinion: How to tackle the childcare-conference conundrum. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 115, 2845-2849, doi:10.1073/pnas.1803153115 (2018).
2 Calisi, R. M. Got milk, must conference. Science (New York, N.Y 359, 838, doi:10.1126/science.359.6377.838 (2018).
3 Calisi, R. M. in Scientific America (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/the-special-challenges-of-being-both-a-scientist-and-a-mom/, 2018).
4 Langin, K. Are conferences providing enough child care support? We decided to find out. Science Magazine (2018).
5 Can, T. S. (ed A Medium Corporation) (2018).
6 GSA Travel Resources, https://www.gsa.gov/travel-resources
7 Nielsen, M. W. et al. Opinion: Gender diversity leads to better science. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 114, 1740-1742, doi:10.1073/pnas.1700616114 (2017).
8 Bos, A. L., Sweet-Cushman, J. & Schneider, M. in Inside Higher Ed (https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/02/07/conferences-should-be-more-family-friendly-women-scholars-children-opinion, 2018).