Conference participation is part of the regular routine for academics. Many scholars look forward to the annual ritual of Congress or attendance at more specialized conferences and workshops. These are, after all, places to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances, and to recharge with intellectual stimulation and interaction. Conferences sustain our commitment to academic work, often pursued in isolation.
But, while these activities are voluntary and bring personal pleasure, they’re also an expected element of our professional life. They allow us to meet new colleagues, explore potential research partnerships, build up our CVs and thus secure employment, tenure or raises, and obtain research funding. They’re a means to disseminate research assessed by granting agencies and university research offices.
Parents of young children – and often women in particular – face an additional challenge to the usual issues of getting conference funding, making travel arrangements and putting the final touches on conference papers. They often need to find childcare. That issue came to a head at the 2013 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held at the University of Victoria. Like the 2012 Congress at the universities of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier, UVic initially offered no childcare. But a petition initiated by Anna Guttman and Kristin Burnett of Lakehead University, and signed by hundreds of academics, forcefully challenged that decision. The petition, along with demands by scholarly association presidents and university representatives, led Congress organizers to make arrangements with a private child care provider (though, as Drs. Guttman and Burnett noted, the last-minute nature of these arrangements and prohibitive cost was not congenial to attendance).
The pressure put on organizers in 2013 did, however, lead to much better provisions for Congress 2014 at Brock University, which offered a flexible, on-campus program. Cost remains an issue, although at the 2015 Congress in Ottawa, childcare will cost $45 to $60 a day, down from $80 at some past meetings. While faculty at some universities can claim dependent care costs when on university business, and the tri-council grant program has begun to develop some provisions for single parents and nursing mothers, many conference participants fall outside these categories. Drs. Guttman and Burnett have called on the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences to create a subsidy for those most affected by childcare costs – the unemployed and sessional instructors – as is the practice of some larger associations (like the Modern Language Association) where the subsidy is available to all members. Graduate students too could benefit from this type of aid.
While many people would welcome such initiatives, women with very young children face an additional problem: they often want and need to attend conferences when they’re still breastfeeding. I have found myself in that position a few times in the past decade. While in other circumstances I might have been able to leave my children at home with my husband, breastfeeding creates a new hurdle. For some women, this situation can last from two to six months. For others, either because they want to breastfeed or their infants want them to, it can last two to three years. In either case it is a reality. And, with the World Health Organization and local breastfeeding groups advocating breastfeeding for the first two years of an infant’s life, it is a reality for an increasing number of mothers.
That raises more issues for mothers of young children. Babies rarely work to their mother’s timetable and certainly not to a conference schedule. I was reminded of this at a recent conference, where a participant with an infant desperately wanted to attend a session, right at the point when her baby needed feeding. After making sure that the presenters wouldn’t mind, she whisked that baby in and sat quietly at the back. (It was not a conference, nor a session, where it would have been an issue.) Still, the young woman felt some discomfort at bringing her baby to a session and, at a minimum, didn’t feel she could take it for granted that it would be acceptable.
None of this should be surprising. In general, academics still work in a male professional model that separates the personal from the professional. Yet those two spheres are inseparable for some families. So it was heartening to me to see a breast-feeding conference participant. I hope that other young women at the conference – those who were pregnant or thinking of starting families – will see that they can do this too. I’m not suggesting that we make a practice of including wailing infants in conference sessions, but we need to make room for the reality of breastfeeding conference participants. Let’s support these women and together normalize the practice.