Can My Child Come?

An EcoChi Vital Abstract

This article was posted on October 1, 2019 by Cassie Werber, Quartz.

When Yan Liu, an associate professor in machine learning at the University of Southern California, had her first child, she found herself in a situation many academics recognize. Her baby was four months old, and one of the field’s major conferences was about to take place. At least the event was within driving distance and, since it was a particularly important conference for her career development, Liu’s husband was able to drop everything to come with her. But she missed other conferences in those early months and years. The problem of conferences, in both academia and business, has been felt by parents—particularly, it has to be said, mothers—for years. Since Liu made that drive to LA six years ago, things have begun to change. Now director of the USC Machine Learning Centre, she is also chair of the organizing committee for KDD 2020, a large conference for data scientists to be held in San Diego, California, that will offer childcare facilities for the duration of the weekend. And data science isn’t alone: Conferences in a range of fields are waking up to the fact that, as events for knowledge sharing and professional development, they’re missing something if parents struggle to attend. In 2016, a woman was ejected from TED’s conference on women, TEDWomen, for bringing her breastfeeding baby into the venue. (When contacted for this article, TED said that it supports nursing mothers by providing “lounges for pumping and suggestions for childcare.” It doesn’t provide childcare and children are not allowed into its conference venues.) Liu said that it’s well known in academia and the wider science industry that women with very young children, and often men with multiple children, often miss out. “This is the critical time not only for childbearing, but also a critical time for career development, and the women miss important opportunities if they don’t participate in the conference[s],” she says. In 2019 the Cannes Film Festival offered childcare, paid for separately by participants, for the first time. Why it is taking so long for conference organizers to wake up to the childcare problem and try to solve it? Cost is an issue, but not a huge one: Compared to venue hire, speaker fees, and catering, childcare is cheap in most countries. Liu said that though the organizing committee had been aware of the problem for years, the #MeToo movement of 2017 may have had a role in pushing them to finally make the leap. She also described a surprising discovery: That conferences, which attract attendees from all over the world, can be special environments for the children themselves. At ICML 2019, a conference for machine learning held in LA that offers childcare, Liu’s six-year-old daughter returned at the end of the first day saying she’d made friends—from Germany, France, China, and elsewhere.

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