Biologist Stephanie Porter’s first child was six months old in 2011 when she and her husband, a fellow scientist, first ventured to an academic conference together.
The results, she said, were a disaster. On-site child care wouldn’t take her infant daughter, Hazel. There were no changing tables in the men’s room, and Porter’s husband was kicked out of the baby room for being a man. And while they did their best to pass Hazel back and forth, Porter usually ended up taking their still exclusively breastfed daughter when there were sessions she and her husband both wanted to attend.
“Honestly, I stopped going to conferences when I had young children,” Porter said.
Porter, an assistant biology professor at Washington State University Vancouver, is in a national group hoping to level the field for mothers in science, particularly at academic conferences. Under the name “A Working Group of Mothers in Science,” she and 45 other women wrote “How to tackle the childcare-conference conundrum,” an opinion piece published in scientific journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
The article offers a blueprint on ways to make conferences more accommodating to families, like offering adequate child care, providing comfortable lactation rooms and tolerating the presence of babies in conference sessions or at lectures.
“With increased participation, especially from women and from members of groups typically not well represented, comes a greater scope of ideas and experiences,” the group wrote in the March article. “This will result in a more robust, productive and intellectually stimulating meeting for all, even beyond considerations of scientific ideas.”
Rebecca Calisi, the primary author on the PNAS article, is an assistant professor and biologist at the University of California Davis campus. A mother of two, Calisi works and lives reproductive health; her research focuses on how the brain controls reproduction and the impacts stress can have on reproduction.
She was spurred to start talking about mothers in science when she attended a conference after having both of her children. She noticed the lactation rooms weren’t rooms at all, but pop-up curtains with office chairs and extension cords inside. She pointed out to an organizer that perhaps a better option would be to replace the office chairs with lounge chairs, and asked that they better wrangle the cords lest a child start playing with them. Within an hour, the adjustments were made.
“It’s not like they didn’t want to, they didn’t know how,” Calisi said. “At least they wanted to. They knew it was best to support women.”
When it’s difficult for women to attend academic conferences, it’s difficult for them to network and see what cutting-edge research is happening around the country, what jobs might be available or what new research techniques exist, said Christine Portfors, associate vice chancellor of research and graduate education for WSU Vancouver.
“Meeting those people is what spurs collaboration, and collaboration spurs discovery,” Portfors said.
Research suggests that women in academia still have a lot of ground to cover. Having babies can set women’s careers behind their male peers, a phenomenon called the “baby penalty.”
Mary Ann Mason, who was the University of California Berkeley’s first woman dean of the campus’ graduate division, co-authored the book 2013 “Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower,” with researchers Nicholas H. Wolfinger and Marc Goulden. That same year, Mason wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education that most academics earn their doctorate degrees and tenure positions between the age of 30 and 40. Those are also the years, she wrote, in which many women begin families.
“For men, having children can be a slight career advantage, and for women, it is often a career killer,” Mason wrote.
Their research found married mothers of young children are 35 percent less likely to find tenure-track jobs than married fathers with young children, and 33 percent less likely to get jobs than unmarried women without children. By the time they hit retirement, women in academia have salaries 29 percent lower than their male peers due to the setbacks in time and money after starting families.
“You’re running on this career track that is covered in obstacles, clouded by bias and covered in Legos,” Calisi said.
Nonetheless, Porter, who is in a tenure-track position at WSU Vancouver, said the scene does appear to be improving for women in science. Porter researches how domesticated plants interact — or, as the case may be, don’t interact — with beneficial bacteria in the soil. Her lab is funded by a continuing grant from the National Science Foundation that thus far has given $528,670 to the project, according to NSF’s website.
Now that scientists have an understanding of the problems women face, it’s a prime time to be involved in projects like the PNAS article to show how to fix the problems, she said.
“We’re at this point where things are changing,” Porter said. “I think it’s a great time to be involved in this.”