Are Women underrepresented at academic conferences?

This post is a response to an article in the Times Higher Education today that women are underrepresented in academic conferences. The article dealt with a number of issues and statistics when it came to under representation of women in conferences. It suggested that it is because women are usually not well represented in professorial ranks in order to be considered worth inviting as speakers but also because they do not feel confident enough to talk in conferences. The article speculated ‘it could be related to their lower perception of their scientific ability and discomfort with self-promotion‘. At best, this statement comes across as totally patronizing towards women. At worst, this statement reinforces some of the gender discrimination women continually face within academia and other professions. I do not believe that women feel less confident. Rather confidence has nothing to do with the way academic networks (which sometimes become well guarded cliques) feed into  popularity, esteem, impact and academic superstardom. Indeed many women I know are not deterred from attending conferences and speaking in them because of lack of confidence; rather they are prevented from doing so because the conference dates, the schedules, the (lack of) childcare facilities and so on clash with their caring roles and responsibilities.

While the article led to a flurry of posts on twitter, it made me reflect on my own reasons for not attending as many conferences as I would like to. Of course we always have too much on our plates and often conference dates clash with our teaching duties (which come first). Yet, having recently become a parent I have reduced my speaking and traveling commitments because they are often incompatible with my childcare responsibilities. I have wondered why there has not been more debate on how women academics or anyone with primary caring roles fulfill the demands of an academic profession which require constant networking and research dissemination activities such as attending conferences, workshops, seminars and so on. Most of us otherwise calm (not!) men and women academics in conferences are anything but calm when it comes to scheduling caring needs before attending conferences. Yet while there has been so much discussion of childcare for working families and the government initiatives to help them, it is amazing that much of it relies on the assumption that working families do not travel for work.

Most conferences in my discipline that I am interested in attending do not provide childcare. Next year for the first time, feminist geographers will be organizing a conference in Omaha, NE that is child and nursing friendly. The only other conference that provides child-care onsite and without cost is the Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG) Annual Meeting in London. Its counterpart in the USA – The Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting provides childcare vouchers. There has been some debate on this recently in the list-serve of Critical Geography but AAG’s position is that it cannot provide onsite childcare because of public liability issues. Organizers of another international conference I attended recently replied to my query on childcare with the statement ‘Childcare is outside the scope of this conference’. The situation is even more challenging when academics are invited to deliver one-off lectures or seminars where there are no other speakers but themselves. And I am being increasingly invited to do so, and then invited to stay for dinner and drinks afterwards, when all I can think of is taking the train home in time to put my child to bed.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy attending conferences, and absolutely love discussing my work in front of new people and opening myself up to interesting new ideas through other presentations and of course making new networks. I always return from conferences intellectually rejuvenated and excited about finishing the paper which I had started earlier. Yet in recent years, childcare has been the most important consideration before I decide to send an abstract in. So how do we deal with childcare when we are in a profession that requires us to travel continuously as an essential aspect of progression within it? How do we fulfill our caring needs when we are away? And finally, does this mean that we participate less in conferences? The answer to the last one might be a yes! for most people with caring responsibilities, but many of us also find ways to negotiate these substantial obstacles presented by a systematic failure of academic networking events to make even a cursory nod to equal opportunities. Here are some of the ways to negotiate this.

1. A supportive partner with flexible working hours

I have been very lucky that my partner is able to adjust his work day and week at short notice and take over childcare in my absence. It goes without saying that he is absolutely brilliant at it and I totally trust him, so for short one-off lectures and seminars in UK or Europe, I have traveled on my own. Although I have desperately missed my child, I have nevertheless known that she was in safe hands.

2.Arrange to share childcare responsibilities with conference attendees

In the recent international conference that I attended, there was no conference organized childcare. On inquiring however, the organizers put me in touch with another attendee who was also bringing her child to the conference. We corresponded via email and decided to take turns watching each others children. This can be fine if you know the other attendee well, but as a parent I always worry about references and endorsements and police checks (I am not paranoid!). I feel reluctant to leave my child with a total stranger (even though an academic like me) who does not know my child or understand her needs. This is also a risky strategy since the other person’s plans can change – she emailed me just before the conference that she could not be there since her child was unwell.

3. Arrange local childcare during the conference

It pays to ask the conference organizers about childcare even though it is not officially provided. I almost dropped out of the conference when the other delegate cancelled, but one of the conference organizers then put me in touch with her own children’s nanny, who also happened to be the 17 year old daughter of another local academic. Local knowledge and references are most important to make you feel reassured about leaving your precious child with a stranger. And I was not disappointed – this 17 year old  girl provided better care for my child than I have seen in the UK.

4. Ask your employer to make a contribution

I am informed that Warwick University makes a contribution to childcare for those attending conferences. To me it is not just about the money, although childcare can be expensive particularly abroad. To me it is about trusting someone to take care of the most important person in your life – your child. So while a contribution from employers is very good news in terms of equal opportunities, it does not still solve the practical problem of finding trustworthy childcare professionals to cover for you while you are at a conference.

5. Make a family trip out of far-flung destinations

I would not recommend this strategy, although I have done this a couple of times when I have had to be away for more than a couple of days. Having your family with you while you are at a conference is very distracting because you can neither focus on the conference since you feel guilty of leaving them behind in the hotel room, nor enjoy with them since you feel you are missing out on the interesting discussions in the conference. It also means that your child might miss school. However, it is a good compromise (albeit an expensive one) when there are no options.

6. Attend only those conferences which provide childcare

As I started this post, I mentioned that there are very few conferences that  consider childcare important enough to address. So in my discipline, if you take this strategy then you are missing out on most conferences and the networking that go with it. However, as an academic parent, I might be doing just this for some more years to come. I do not see it as my loss, but a loss suffered by those conferences that structurally eliminate the participation of academics in caring roles.

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