This article is published in the September 2007 issue.

Fifteen Years Later, Caregivers Still an Issue for Conference Attendees

Expanding the Pipeline

In January 1993, Elaine Weyuker wrote an article for this column in CRN titled “Childcare an Issue for Conference Attendees,” making a powerful case for support for childcare at conferences (see: 1993 Article). Almost fifteen years later, that article remains relevant. The original article focused on on-site childcare, but similar observations apply for caregiver support for other needs, such as those of the physically disabled.

Unfortunately, not much has changed on this issue over the past 15 years. In most cases, a researcher who must take a child to a conference (because he is a single parent or because his partner also needs to attend the same conference or because she is nursing an infant) still faces experiences similar to those in the 1993 article. In the best case, a caregiver is available and the researcher attends the meeting at a hefty out-of-pocket expense. The 1993 article discusses such expenses, which can run into a thousand or more dollars per trip, and are especially impractical for junior researchers. Often, however, it is simply not possible to go because it is not possible to find a caregiver. Again, see the 1993 article for the travails a parent must go through to find on-site childcare, summarized by the author as being “not for the faint-hearted.” It is easy to see that this issue can be a major detriment to the career of junior researchers who most need the connections and visibility provided through travel.

Addressing the caregiver problem in its entirety is certainly challenging, but we cannot wait another 15 years. Our funding agencies, universities, companies, and professional organizations today are deeply committed to broadening participation in computer science from all members of society. Achieving this goal in a meaningful way requires solving the caregiver problem—although the problem can affect anyone, it is a critical issue for a disproportionate fraction of women and physically disabled researchers. For nursing mothers of young infants, often the only practical way to travel is to take the infant and a caregiver along. As the children grow older, the most common childcare backup (partner) is often not available to the many women married to other professionals who may have conflicting travel schedules. For researchers with certain physical disabilities, travel without a caregiver is simply impossible.

An effective solution to this problem requires support for both defraying expenses and finding on-site caregivers. With a concerted effort, our funding agencies, universities, professional organizations, and community leadership can collectively solve this problem. A few organizations have already started to take steps towards these solutions, and provide valuable guidance for wider adoption.

Caregiver Expenses: A Call to Funding Agencies and Universities

For academic researchers, funding agencies can have the widest impact on expenses by allowing them in travel budgets of grants. NSERC, the Canadian funding agency, already allows charging for childcare expenses while a nursing mother or single parent is traveling 1. U.S. federal agencies would presumably need to revise appropriate regulations to allow such expenses, and this will not happen immediately. Nevertheless, a concerted effort needs to begin if we are to truly accomplish the goal of broadening participation in computing, as stated by agencies such as NSF.

Universities must play a lead role in supplementing the funding agencies. Junior faculty, in particular, are often tight on grant funds. University-supported awards for caregiver expenses can help such researchers. Princeton currently has such a dependent care grant program 2. Universities can also proactively seek private donors and allow such expenses to be charged to gift funds.

Companies and professional organizations such as ACM and IEEE can also contribute by broadening their travel grant programs to include such expenses. For example, ACM’s SIGARCH provides airfare for a travel companion for nursing mothers and disabled researchers 3.

Establishing such programs requires working out several details, especially whom and what expenses to support. SIGARCH chose to restrict support to nursing mothers of infants and physically disabled researchers as a first step. A more comprehensive program would provide support for single parents (as NSERC does) and when both parents need to travel to the same meeting. The 1993 article lists legitimate expenses when the caregiver is found at the meeting site. In the case of younger children and the disabled, a caregiver may accompany them from home, incurring travel costs. Some parents may leave their children at home, incurring overnight care costs. Some disabilities require other on-site assistance such as sign language interpreters. Some limits will obviously be needed; for example, childcare support may be provided only for elementary-grade or younger children or only for junior researchers.

A possible concern is that this uses limited funds for a small part of the community; however, this is consistent with other programs for increasing diversity. The expenses are a relatively small fraction of overall research expenses, and each organization could set a limit for the absolute amount to be used.

Finding Caregivers: A Call to Professional Societies

Our major professional societies, such as ACM and IEEE, can have the largest impact on the issue of finding reliable caregivers. First, these organizations can adopt the policy that (major) conferences be held at hotels that provide childcare facilities.

Second, they can contract with agencies that provide caregiver support across wide regions (e.g., 4). This will allow caregiver access at a discounted price for conferences in the supported regions.

Third, they can establish a set of best practices to which conference committee members are expected to adhere (some examples follow below). Check boxes in the conference budget forms would remind committees of these practices (e.g., publicity for the availability of caregiver support), making such considerations part of standard conference planning.

Liability is an obvious concern here. It is therefore encouraging that some organizations have successfully dealt with this concern and provide a model to emulate. For example, the upcoming Grace Hopper Conference will provide subsidized childcare through an independent childcare service and sponsored by a company 5, and several universities now use agencies to provide backup dependent care for their employees (e.g., Princeton 6, UIUC 7). The liability issue is one reason why it may be best to tackle this problem through our larger professional organizations.

The Role of the Research Community Leadership

The research community leadership must also play a major role. First, we need to make clear our acknowledgement of the problem and the willingness to help. For example, a conference Call for Participation may include a statement to the effect that the local arrangements chair can enable people with childcare needs to get in touch with each other, or better still, provide pointers to local childcare resources. Currently, many junior researchers will not even ask for help lest they appear unprofessional.

Ideally, the conference committee member would easily obtain this information by working with the professional organization sponsoring the conference. Even otherwise, the committee member can make a difference with a little bit of effort. Many universities today have a range of resources for caregivers, including listings of childcare providers that take drop-ins, contracts with providers for backup care, and electronic student job boards for advertisements for babysitting. Making such information from local universities available to conference attendees would be helpful. The expectation here is not to provide childcare, but to provide a local point of contact for information.

Conference committee members can also contribute by proactively including this cause when seeking company sponsorships for conference events. Individual researchers can also affect policy at lower levels; for example, by lobbying their SIGs to adopt some variation of the SIGARCH companion travel grants.

In summary, if we are to broaden participation in computing, the caregiver problem must (and can) be addressed through complementary efforts of our funding agencies, universities, companies, and professional organizations.



Fifteen Years Later, Caregivers Still an Issue for Conference Attendees