Recently, I asked on Twitter how to make professional development opportunities such as conferences, seminars, and workshops more accessible to parents. I was thinking specifically about summertime development opportunities, which are more likely to be multi-day trips away from home.
The responses to my Twitter query confirmed my suspicions: there are no easy answers. Let’s face it—balancing parent life with professional life means compromises have to be made. Parents often forego professional development opportunities because the labor of finding childcare and organizing travel is just too much. It’s not a requirement for professional development meetings to provide childcare. But acknowledging the need goes a long way toward telling parents that they are welcome and their contribution is desired.
I fully recognize the struggles of funding professional development. It’s expensive to put on a conference or a week-long seminar, and childcare is a big expense. Organizers have a million tiny details to consider. Free childcare isn’t really cost-practical for most academic organizations (we can’t all be WWDC). Furthermore, one size doesn’t fit all. Childcare needs look radically different between a weekend conference and a 6-week residential fellowship, or something in between. Offering childcare for kids of school age is vastly different than for younger kids. But every little bit helps.
You should always assume that childcare will be an issue for your particular participant pool. Are you running a graduate-student conference? Grad students have kids. Are you running a conference for predominantly male participants (yes, naval historians, I’m talking about you)? Men have kids. And some naval historians are women! Is your conference just one day or on the weekend? Kids don’t magically disappear on the weekends, and many of your participants may be solo parenting.
With these things in mind, here are some ideas I’ve received on Twitter or have considered myself for including parents in your planning. I wouldn’t expect all of these from any one conference/seminar, but I’d argue that the first two should be provided for absolutely every one:
- Provide resources for on-site or near-site childcare. Maybe there’s a daycare in the area that will accept short-term kids. Maybe there are some students in your university’s early childhood education program who would be willing to provide paid childcare in a nearby room or gym to your professional venue. Maybe you can compile a list of available sitters on Sittercity or Care.com. Are there camps at your university or in your county that run concurrently with your conference/seminar? Tell attendees about the possibility of sending their kids to one of those. How you manage this will depend on how long your conference/seminar is, but it should be done. This is true even if you provide grants to assist with childcare costs. All the money in the world won’t help a parent know where they can find reliable and trustworthy childcare in an unfamiliar city. (BTW, this includes childcare during evening plenaries or cocktail hours or whatever. If you want adults to socialize with each other, then their kids have to be somewhere safe.)
- Sometimes parents need support even if their kids can stay home while they travel. Provide a nursing/pumping room for moms. Pumping rooms include four major things: (1) a chair that isn’t excruciatingly painful to sit on; (2) a table to put the pump/bottles/etc. on; (3) an outlet; (4) A FRIDGE TO STORE THE MILK. The fridge doesn’t have to be in the same place, but it should be close. And notice that none of these four requirements is a bathroom. In fact, pumping in a bathroom is gross and should be avoided if at all possible.
- In the same vein, provide a room for parents with small kids to detox. This is especially helpful at conferences. It should have some chairs. This should NOT be the same space as the nursing/pumping room. (Bonus if there are kid-friendly snacks available!)
- Consider kids in your extracurriculars. Many conferences offer field trips for their participants. Consider offering field trips that kids could come along on. Provide lists of interesting attractions in the area (walkable is best!). Where can a parent take their kids when everyone’s tired of conferencing?
- Consider offering multiple ways of access to your content. Sometimes parents just can’t get away (e.g., when the big annual meeting coincides with the start of the elementary school’s second semester). Perhaps you can make sessions from your seminar available online in real time or as recordings. Or you can post papers or notes from sessions online. As a few people pointed out, face-to-face interaction is one of the purposes of many professional development events, but more diffuse dissemination brings more people into the conversation, even if that conversation is asynchronous with the event (who knows–it might even keep everyone’s mind on the topic after the event is over!).
Most importantly, none of these suggestions will do anyone any good if you do not tell people about them. If you don’t announce on your website that you’ll have childcare options, people with kids may pass your CFP by. If you don’t put the information about the location of the nursing room in your conference program, nursing moms will miss more sessions than necessary because they have to find somewhere on their own. If you don’t tell people up front that you’ve thought about this issue, they’ll assume you haven’t thought about it and will either have to find their own solutions or just not come to your event.
These suggestions are all low-cost in terms of money. All they require is some commitment and some legwork to find the resources or spaces necessary. Implementing one or more of these ideas will signal to your potential participants that they are welcome even if they have kids. I’ll be working to incorporate them myself as I plan events.
What suggestions do you have for making professional development opportunities parent-friendly?