Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Families and Conferences

Last week, I attended a conference in Grand Teton National Park. At one point, a friend noted, "there are lots of families here!" And there were. Why not use a conference in a spectacular location as an excuse to bring the family along and make a vacation out of it? And perhaps it even means that astronomy is getting more family-friendly.

Then I realized that almost all of the families belonged to men attending the conference. Most of the women that I knew who had kids had left them at home, including myself. Perhaps it's simply a matter of statistics: there are more men than women in astronomy, and a greater percentage of male than female astronomers have children. But I think it's also the case that many women find that bringing their families to a conference is too distracting: I certainly learned that the hard way. I think many of us are also instinctively aware that working mothers are judged differently that working fathers and so we choose to keep them out of sight.

I'm also not really convinced that families showing up at conferences are necessarily a good indication of the family-friendliness of the profession. This conference was on exoplanets, a young and growing field. This means that a lot of exoplanet scientists are in the right demographic group to be starting families, and until they are old enough to start school, why not bring them along to a conference in a cool location. There's a long way to go in terms of policy before we can say that astronomy is family-friendly overall.

On the other hand, whenever I see a woman scientist bringing a baby to a conference (like my fellow blogger, Ann!), I make a little cheer. After all, we do serve as role models for younger scientists who aspire to have it all. And, maybe, just maybe, the more we demonstrate that we can be successful scientists and mothers a the same time, the more we can smash stereotypes about working mothers.

-by Hannah