Monday, May 6, 2013

Child-Friendly Conferences

I feel lucky to be part of an awesome, inclusive community that is flexible and thoughtful about how to help people with different constraints participate and contribute. Everyone wants great researchers to produce great work, so we try to remove the obstacles that get in the way. Following Friday’s post with advice for traveling to conferences with children, several conference organizers have expressed interest in how they might help make it easier for parents to attend. What follows is a list of ideas for supporting parents at conferences, compiled with the help of colleagues*:

  • Welcome children
    • Provide children's registration
    • Provide a list of local children’s resources
    • Subsidize companion registration
    • Explicitly allow children in sessions
    • Designate onsite space for:
      • Pumping
      • Nursing
    • Organize a Family Welcome Reception
  • Support childcare
    • Provide childcare for special events
    • Provide a list of childcare providers
    • Connect parents for childcare sharing
    • Offer childcare scholarships
    • Publish the program as early as possible
    • Group sessions by topic so childcare can be scheduled in blocks
    • Situate conference hotel at or near the conference venue
    • Create an emergency conference contact number for international travelers
  • Minimize travel
    • Avoid weekends
    • Co-locate with other conferences
    • Remote attendance
    • Remote PC meetings
    • Relax presentation requirements in special circumstances

Welcome Children

One easy way to welcome children is to provide a children’s registration. At little to no cost, a child could get a registration badge, a box of crayons, and official entrance into the conference. Web Science proactively gave Dillon a badge when I attended with him in 2011, and he still has it hanging in his cubby because it made him so happy. Louise Barkhuus reports having requested badges for her children at past CHIs and CSCWs, and it would be awesome if this practice were institutionalized. Having children register has the side benefit of providing the conference organizers with a list of parents and children attending the conference, which could be useful for providing onsite support or connecting parents prior to the conference.

The child’s registration packet would be a good place to provide local child-related information to parents. Useful information includes the location of nearby parks, grocery stores, pharmacies, and urgent care or emergency rooms (yes, unfortunately, I’ve needed this), and contact information for baby sitters and childcare services.

Many people who travel with children also attend with a spouse, family member, or friend who provides their childcare. However, companion registration is often prohibitively expensive. I know these tickets are typically priced at the marginal cost of including another person, but a conference could further subsidize them. An alternative would be to provide a free, stripped-down companion registration that does not include access to expensive items (e.g., drink or banquet tickets), but does provide the companion with access to the conference for childcare transitions.

To support parents traveling without childcare, make an explicit policy that children are welcome in sessions. If there is concern that children might be disruptive, include a request that loud children be taken outside as appropriate. But I would guess such a caveat is unnecessary, as I have never seen a parent allow a crying baby or talking child to disrupt a talk. If you expect sessions to be very crowded, it might make sense to designate a few seats for parents by the door so that it is easy for them to come and go as needed.

A designated onsite space for children to play could make it easier for parents to briefly entertain their children when they find it necessary to step out of a session. Such space could include a comfortable seat for nursing and a few quiet toys. If the talks are being recorded, it would be very cool to stream them into the play space so that parents could keep abreast of what they were missing. The play space should be out in the open rather than hidden away, since parents attending conferences want to be visible and randomly encounter colleagues. It should also be accessible to companions and childcare providers, and as such could double as a meeting space for parents at transition times.

Additionally, a designated private space for pumping would be very valuable for nursing mothers. My least favorite part of attending a conference with a baby is having to spend my coffee breaks in the bathroom pumping because my child is somewhere else. The other women using the restroom have always been very nice about it, but sometimes the facilities leave much to be desired in terms of space or cleanliness, and it is fairly awkward to meet a colleague for the first time with a loud machine attached to your breasts. Of course, I am the only person I have ever seen pumping at a conference, so I would guess this is an atypical need. But it is also something that could make a big difference for a young woman who is considering traveling alone with a baby to a conference. The children’s registration form could be used to ask whether pumping space is needed, but be aware that the need applies to nursing mothers regardless of whether or not the baby is present. For example, at SIGIR 2005 I had to pump regularly even though I was alone because I wanted to be able to continue nursing when I returned home. (Ask me one day, after a few glasses of wine, about my adventures running around Brazil trying to fix my broken pump.) [Edit: Several women have contacted me to say they have pumped at conferences, and that conference organizers have located private rooms for them. I wish I had known to ask! May be worth mentioning the option explicitly.]

Another way to welcome families would be to hold a Family Welcome Reception early in the conference (e.g., shortly before the larger general Welcome Reception). This would allow families to get to know each other and create the opportunity for connections to be made for setting up conference play dates and shared childcare.

Support Childcare

For parents attending a conference without a companion, childcare is easily the most significant challenge. Most of the past attempts to provide conference-organized childcare that I am aware of have failed. For example, Arjen De Vries and Wessel Kraaij tried to setup childcare for SIGIR 2007, and faced challenges with enrollment, cost, legal issues, and the variety of age and needs in the children who would attend. CHI used to have childcare, too, and dropped it for similar reasons. Further, even when CHI’s childcare was available I could not use it because it was not offered for infants, which is a shame because it is much easier to find care for a five-year old than for a five-month old. Despite these challenges, however, childcare is a particularly important issue to address if a conference is interested in supporting families to increase participation by women. Mothers are significantly less likely to have a stay-at-home spouse, and much more likely to be traveling on their own with a child.

It may be possible for a conference to provided limited childcare at important networking events like the banquet or reception. A children’s entertainer, for example, could keep kids engaged while not officially assuming responsibility for the children because their parents are socializing nearby.

It is also certainly possible for a conference to support childcare without actually providing it. For example, conference organizers could gather a list of local childcare providers. A list of university students who would be willing to babysit would be a coveted resource, as would the names of local placement services. Additionally, companions who attend conference with a parent may be able to watch the child of a colleague. For example, Griffin spent a several wonderful days in Singapore with Rosie Jones’s nanny and child at SIGIR 2008. Providing structure for these ad hoc arrangements (including support for making connections and a suggested babysitting rate) could make setting them up somewhat easier.

Childcare is very expensive, particularly when it is necessary to use a service that comes with placement fees. Travel grants to subsidize childcare would be nice, and could be targeted to help those most in need of help defraying the cost (e.g., graduate students). Cost could also be minimized by connecting parents with children of similar ages or needs so that they could arrange joint childcare.

Specific times for childcare often need to be arranged in advance, and this can be hard to do until the conference program is published. The conference program should be advertised as early as possible. Childcare also typically needs to be arranged in blocks. When traveling with an infant, I used to try to figure out the best six hour block each day, and those blocks would be the only time I would have care. When multiple sessions with similar themes are grouped temporally (e.g., all of the social media sessions at CHI, or all of the HCI sessions at SIGIR), it is easier to arrange an efficient block than it is when the sessions I want to attend are sprinkled throughout the program.

Communicating with a childcare provider in a strange city can be hard. As ubiquitous as mobile phones are, international travelers often do not have the ability to receive incoming phone calls. These parents may value a local “emergency contact” phone number that they could give to their childcare provider. In the case of an emergency the babysitter could call the emergency contact, who could in turn find the parent in whatever session they are attending. Additionally, because I must leave my child in the hotel room during the day, having the conference hotel located near the conference venue is essential.

Minimize Travel

The above suggestions focus on supporting parents that want to bring their children with them to the conference. The community can also make things easier for parents by minimizing the impact of travel. For example, it is less disruptive on my family for me to travel by myself during the week, and I can often attend weekday events by myself if I still get to see my children over the weekend. I also really like co-located conferences, because I can see a diverse set of colleagues in just one trip.

Despite everyone's best efforts, sometimes children will make it impossible to travel. I attended SIGIR 2008 while 32 weeks pregnant, and the airline almost didn’t allow me to return to the United States because they thought I was too close to giving birth. Remote attendance (at conferences and PC meetings) would be extremely valuable for many parents, and while it is impossible to remotely produce most of the benefits of physical attendance, some benefit may be better than none at all. In particular, rather than requiring attendance to publish at a conference it seems reasonable to support remote presentation options in special circumstances (e.g., if the author is about to or has just recently given birth).

Update: A revised version of this post has been published in the ACM-W newsletter, along with valuable comments from other female researchers.

* Thank you to: Louise Barkhuus, Michael Bendersky, Arjen De Vries, Jofish Kaye, Mounia Lalmas, Erin Panttaja, and Ian Soboroff.


  1. Thanks for the pointer. I know Grace Hopper does, too (and for free!). I will update the post to mention them as examples. How large is SIGCSE? How many women attend? I would imagine it must be particularly hard to reach a critical mass at smaller conferences attended mostly by men -- which, ironically, may be where the extra support would be most valuable.

  2. SIGCSE "Kids Camp" was great the year I went. There were trained professionals augmented with conference student volunteers, and there was a mix of computer and non-computer activities. The prices were reasonable, the food was decent (and you could bring your own), and the activities were fun and age-appropriate. I think SIGCSE puts this in place to make K-12 educators feel welcome--they keep registration costs very low for them, and perks like cheap on-site childcare make it easier for them to attend.

  3. Cool post. Conference organizers need leaders to take charge and try these ideas.

  4. SIGCSE (computer science educators) is 1,200 attendees, predominantly men, but I think the key thing is that they deliberately move it around the country each year so that people in each region (K-12 teachers as Scott says) can drive to it. I think being able to drive vs. fly (and having a fun kids program) encourages people to bring kids, so they have critical mass.

  5. Wonderful article! So many things we experienced or would have wanted when the kids were younger. I would add simply being responsible about any cancellations. One year we signed up for child care at chi and when we arrived to drop our toddler off we were formed it had been cancelled and we were never even notified!

  6. This is obviously a very late comment, but SXSW interactive has had a mother's room for pumping for a few years now. When I used it a few years ago, it was actually really crowded. I think the need is more than we realize, but people use bathrooms, their car, or figure out a way to get back to their hotel room if it's close.

  7. This is obviously a very late comment, but SXSW interactive has had a mother's room for pumping for a few years now. When I used it a few years ago, it was actually really crowded. I think the need is more than we realize, but people use bathrooms, their car, or figure out a way to get back to their hotel room if it's close.

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  9. How do we find conferences that are child friendly and do this though? There needs to be a database or common place we can go to and find conferences that support us.

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