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How to hold a baby-friendly conference

Last time I talked about attending a conference with a baby. Many of you gave me great feedback about your own experiences. Unfortunately, some women shared stories of departments or committees which weren't supportive of students having babies during graduate school, or even talking about being parents. Frankly, that attitude is a symptom of dysfunctional PhD program culture, something Sarah Kendzior explores in an excellent piece in Vitae from this past summer. Perhaps all we can do through discussions like these is to share our experiences, support each other through the tough stuff, and slowly change the culture of academia together. Now there's a nice thought.

In this post I'll be describing how you can hold a family-friendly conference. More and more conference committees are ensuring that parents of babies and young children can participate in their events. It's not difficult to make things much, much easier for parent attendees, and they'll really appreciate it. Here are a few steps you can take to make your conference more accessible* to parents.

1. Treat parents like normal participants.

You have the opportunity to set a parent-friendly tone early on, as early as the CFP. If you let potential parent attendees know that you have anticipated some of their needs, they will be much more likely to feel welcome in your space. During the conference itself, organizers and volunteers can treat parents in a way that reinforces how much they belong. I think this attitude will do more to get you in good with you to parent participants than any particular thing you can do for them.

2. Choose your venue carefully.

Conference venues, usually university campuses or hotels, are variable in their parent-friendliness. Are there nearby washrooms? Do they have changing tables? Is there seating in the registration/coffee break area? Are there elevators? Is there parking or accessible transit nearby? Is the conference building isolated or are there nearby buildings? Is the neighbourhood walkable? The more of these boxes you can tick, the better.

3. Provide childcare, or help your participants find some.

Larger conferences have started paying more attention to childcare needs. While corporations or large unions have been known to offer free childcare to their employees/members during meetings, it's also becoming common for large conferences to arrange for on-site childcare that participants can register and pay for in advance. Being able to drop children off nearby is very helpful, especially for those who travelled to attend. University campuses often have daycare venues that can be used for this purpose. If organizing on-site childcare isn't possible, offer information about local reputable childcare services in the registration package. 

4. Offer parents their own space.

It's a huge help to parents if conference organizers can offer them a quiet room where they can escape the bustle and crowds. It doesn't need to be especially fancy; just somewhere out of the way (with a door that closes) where they can feed their children. Bonus points for a sofa or two, a fridge, a divider or screened-off area for breastfeeding or pumping, a flat surface that can be used as a changing table, and a nearby or ensuite bathroom.

5. Offer financial support if you can.

If your budget has room to offer travel funding to some of your attendees (student or underemployed members), consider a child or dependent care subsidy as well. This can go a long way toward allowing parents' and caregivers' participation. It's possible that your membership will be happy to contribute to this fund through a donation option at registration.

*note: there are potentially other dimensions of accessibility that I haven't taken into account, and these tips may not be appropriate for all caregivers' needs. When in doubt, consider surveying your membership about their needs and preferences.

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