Are conferences for kids? Reconciling childcare, careers, and conferences 

Responding to the increasing presence of parents in academia, Ruth Gazsó Candlish and Katie B. Garner discuss the need for family-friendly conferences. Here, they share their experiences of conferencing with children, and offer suggestions for change

Should I leave the kids at home?

There are a lot of parents in academia – 70% of men who are professors have children, and 40% of women – a disparity we need to talk more about! Among junior academics, those who most need to go to conferences to raise their profile, boost their career, build networks etc, an estimated three-quarters have childcare responsibilities. 

So where are all the kids at conference? For some academics, travelling solo is the most preferable or suitable option; others want or need to bring their children with them. And conferencing excludes some parents more than others. Academic mothers, single parents, and non-traditional students all report greater challenges around financing and accessing conferences linked to parenting.

Academic mothers and single parents report greater challenges around financing and accessing conferences

Given the travel, overnight stays, and extra hours that come with conferencing, we need to design events where caregiving is not siloed from work, especially for those who face additional barriers. 

The conference-childcare conundrum  

Offering childcare at conferences is not easy. Childcare is costly, can involve legal issues, and can be extremely problematic if not done well. Many larger conferences provide nursing rooms and childcare, but take-up levels can be low. At ECPR’s 2023 General Conference in Prague, for example, only three participants out of the c.2,000 attendees used the free childcare service.

While some parents need or choose to go solo, the lack of children may be because participants are reluctant to take their kids, perhaps unaware that childcare is available or how it works. More worryingly, this might also suggest that some academic parents are being forced to opt out of conferencing altogether.  

A longer and more enjoyable stay – Ruth’s experience  

I have been pregnant and parenting throughout my studies, and I've often needed (and wanted) to bring my children along to events and conferences. This year, my five-year old and I attended ECPR's General Conference in Prague. Our childcare place was sorted well in advance. A playroom with plenty of toys and crafts was provided and staffed by two childcare assistants. My university also provided me with a grant towards the cost of my child’s travel and accommodation. This is something we campaigned for back in 2020.

The trip was an important moment for both of us. I was able to stay for the whole conference (which I’ve never managed before) and my child had a great time – travelling on a night train, and visiting new places. Given my experiences, I encouraged my home institution, CEU, to offer childcare and a family event at our annual graduate conference in Vienna this year.  

Crèche facilities at the 2023 ECPR General Conference at Charles University in Prague

Enriching experiences – Katie’s story 

When my oldest was 11, they joined me at an international conference in Florence. I knew they would be interested in the adventure, and maybe the conference, too. Five other women brought their children, and while there was no formal childcare, children were welcomed. They shared drawings during conference talks and made up (quiet) games. If their attention spans waned, their mother or – importantly – another attendee would offer entertainment. In the evenings, we went to dinner together with our kids – sharing career strategies, games, and gelato. My child proudly declared, 'I now have a friend all the way in Australia!'

My oldest still enjoys attending conferences with me; they have even started asking questions. It’s an amazing opportunity that I wish more children could have. After all, it has only been over the past 150 years that children have been so removed from the work their parents do.  

Revising conference culture

Going online during the pandemic showed just how many of us have children at home. This made scholars rethink our broader ways of working, but also pushed us into reflecting on how conferences are designed, who they in/exclude and how to change them for the better. Redesigning conferences in more inclusionary ways is a critical part of redressing gender, class, and other inequalities in academia. Funding is not the only barrier to change. Attitudes, expectations, and assumptions play a critical role in shaping conference culture. When a parent senses that they will be one of the few bringing a child along or they will be thought less of for doing so, cultural pressure might stall them.

Half of all European part-time students and almost a third of graduate students have children

This is changing. More European students than ever are now parents – half of all part-time students and almost a third of graduate students have children – and they are taking their children to conference in greater numbers (e.g. Taking a Baby to Conference Crowdsource Project). Parent-scholar initiatives and networks are growing, many born out of the pandemic. This is shifting how conferencing is done, with recent events showing how to design with children in mind. The 2024 Radical Mothering Conference at Warwick, for example, expressly values the presence of children.   

Suggestions for family-friendly conferences

Institutional change needs to be supported by cultural change: we need to reframe the presence of children and families at conferences. Alongside free childcare and facilities, we recommend that conferences make parents feel welcome by doing the following:  

  • Offering a family social hour to help parents meet up and build alternative networks. 
  • Exploring child-friendly programming – opening tourist events to families, youth panels for older children. 
  • Scheduling childcare so that it opens before and closes after events to allow parents to move between locations. 
  • Thinking about timing of conferences and how it fits to school and other holidays, as well as school exams etc. 
  • Communicating a clear policy on families and sharing local advice, e.g. child-friendly restaurants, nearby playparks. 

This kind of change can only happen with broader support. IAMAS has launched a petition for Family Friendly Conferences that you can sign. Remind your institutions, funding bodies, and organising committees that childcare is a necessity. And think about bringing your children to conference – it could be a great adventure together and a powerful model for them and others.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Ruth Gazsó Candlish Ruth Gazsó Candlish PhD Candidate, Central European University More by this author
photograph of Katie Garner Katie Garner Executive Director, International Association of Maternal Action + Scholarship More by this author

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Comments

One comment on “Are conferences for kids? Reconciling childcare, careers, and conferences ”

  1. Thanks for raising this issue and some great ideas for improvement. An additional one could be childcare options at conferences for younger children. I could not even consider bringing my 1-year old to the ECPR conference in Prague as childcare was only available from age 3+. Especially during those first few years as a parent, it can be challenging to stay connected to international peers, and I think that if bringing your child to a conference becomes a habit from early on, this can also become more institutionalised as the kids grow older.

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