Going to conferences and training events can be vital for sharpening your skills and maintaining a strong professional network. Unfortunately, many mothers avoid conferences and multi-day training courses because of parenting-related challenges. When I asked about this on Facebook I was flooded with women (and a few men) sharing reasons they didn’t attend professional events, and discussions with colleagues yielded similar stories. Luckily, there are three things that conference and training organizers can do to welcome and support moms (and all parents) at their events.
1 – Provide onsite childcare
The main deterrent that my mom friends cited for not going to conferences was a lack of childcare. Available childcare can benefit all parents, not just moms. There are a number of reasons why someone may need a childcare option in order to attend an event. They may be a single parent or their partner may have a job that does not allow them to handle childcare in the other person’s absence. Even if someone doesn’t have to travel for an event she may need childcare if the event extends into the evenings or weekend when their normal childcare options may not be available.
The only conference I’ve personally attended that offered onsite childcare was BlogHer. It’s probably not a coincidence that BlogHer is a conference run primarily by women, many of whom are mothers. Although I did not need to use the childcare at BlogHer I immediately recognized how wonderful it was to have the option. Yes, it costs money to take a kid to a conference, but for many it is worth the investment to be able to attend the event.
2 – Offer a lactation room
Another recurring challenge my mom friends mentioned was the need to pump to express breast milk. If a nursing mom has a hotel room at the conference location she may be able to go there to pump, but sometimes that is not possible. Friends told stories of pumping in breakout session rooms without locking doors hoping that no one barged in or being told to go to the mall across the street and use a Macy’s bathroom. Others said that the need to pump stopped them from going to events altogether. There are certain challenges with pumping for a series of days away from home (such as keeping the milk chilled and reminding TSA agents that breast milk is not subject to the 3-1-1 rule) that the event planner cannot help with, but knowing there will be a clean, non-bathroom space in which to pump during the day is a very supportive step.
3 – Welcome well-behaved infants in sessions
Infants are highly portable and mostly sleep and eat, which makes it easy to take them places. Allowing a parent to have a baby with them at an event reduces the needs for childcare and pumping. Plus, it helps address another barrier to moms attending conferences and long training events: separation anxiety.
Several parents (women and at least one man) noted that they have avoided going to events because they did not want to leave their children. One woman noted that she would make up other excuses, so she wouldn’t have to admit to her boss the real reason why she didn’t want to go.
Not wanting to be away from one’s children is perfectly natural, yet women fear that admitting it will make them seem less serious about their careers. This conflict can be minimized by having an openly stated policy saying that parents may bring well-behaved infants to sessions. Note that I said having an openly stated policy. Saying that you wouldn’t say no if someone asked isn’t enough. There is a big difference between being allowed and feeling welcome.
That’s the big thing: Feeling welcome. Feeling like we belong. Mothers coming back from maternity often have heightened impostor syndrome. We worry about being taken seriously as professionals. (It doesn’t help knowing there were people betting we wouldn’t come back or still expecting us to quit at any moment.) Being able to attend conferences and training courses is one way for mothers to feel like active members of their professions, but mothers don’t want to attend events where they don’t think their needs will be met or will be viewed as a bother.
One friend who organizes conferences said that all parents need to do is ask if they need something, but other friends shared stories demonstrating that not everyone you ask will be helpful. See the note above about being sent to a mall to pump as one example.
Parents shouldn’t have to hope that they luck out and get a kind and empathetic event organizer. Conferences should know that parents may want to attend their events but may not go because of these concerns. Events that can accommodate the needs of parents are more likely to get us (and our money) there.
RELATED POST: Here’s to the ladies who pump
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