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


Eilat said...

During my first postdoc, when my son was a baby/toddler, it was suggested to me to go to a 2 week summer school in Aspen by my male colleagues. I reminded them that I cannot leave my child for that long a time (because of breastfeeding and just in general...)
"Bring the family with you!" they would say. "I bring my kids when I go."
"Who watches the kids while you are working?" I would ask.
"Oh, I bring my wife too," they would reply.

"I need a wife" was my immediate thought.

How many of the guys at your conference brought a wife/childcareperson with them?

L. Trouille said...

It has made an enormous difference to me in seeing grad students, postdocs, and other early career scientists, both men and women, bringing their children to conferences. It makes it seem that much more doable seeing others making it work. But I definitely appreciate my postdoc friend who also lets me know of the difficulties -- you all don't have to be supermoms or superdads! Part of what makes it seem doable is when I see that you all are not perfect and that it is a tough juggling act, but that you still are able to do it.

msanni said...

Like Eliat, I'd be curious to know how many of the astronomers with children at your conference brought along their partner. In the past, I've noticed that when I meet women astronomers with kids and partner at a conference, their partner turns out to be a more senior male astronomer with a permanent job. What I've not yet encountered is a postdoc/tenure track astronomer at his partner's conference looking after the kids.

On a slightly different note, when I take my son to a conference it's usually because my husband is travelling at the same time. Even in our case -- my husband is lawyer specialising in feminist/postcolonial theory with mostly female colleagues -- it took me a while to realise that we always assumed that it was my responsibility to organize childcare at my conference, rather than taking turns or asking our son which parent he'd rather travel with.

Sona said...

It is all about men's education... If they are not going to cooperate, all we can do is to turn to superwomen with super powers which in the end will leave us exhausted and therefore not practical.... The reason that men can go along with their family is the women accepts for couple days to take care of everything and ask for minimal time from their partners.. but men "think" when they go along with their wife to a conference, the wife "should" plan ahead and manage to perform the same responsibly level as home and also be in the conference!!! This is NOT acceptable!... I am not married but I got this message from listening to one of the professors in one of the meetings. She was actually advising me to learn the skills to do so and i said NO! i said that is the worse kind of culture that we, as women, are responsible for spreading it! We, are human beings and a solution that requires us to learn superpower skills are not the answer.... we should all learn to find the practical and fair solutions and spread the culture to perform it.