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Simon Trudel and Julie Lefebvre, professors in the chemistry department at the University of Calgary, play with their children Alexandre Trudel (red shirt) and William Trudel (blue shirt).

Krista Leroux

Simon Trudel and Julie Lefebvre, professors in the University of Calgary’s chemistry department, have been attending conferences in their chosen field for 15 years. It was never a hassle until three years ago, when they had twins.

Suddenly, it became a logistical nightmare: Who would go and who would stay home to look after the boys? Since conferences are de rigeur for academics to keep up with developments in their field – therefore important to both Trudel and Lefebvre – it often came down to a toss of a coin.

This year, the couple were both able to attend the annual conference for the Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC) held in Edmonton last month, a feat made possible because the organization offered daycare for the first time.

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“It’s something that’s been long overdue,” says Trudel, 38. “Trying to figure out what to do with the kids around these types of events puts a huge strain on many families. This gave William and Alexandre a chance to travel with us, and we were able to get the most out of the panels and itinerary while knowing the boys were nearby and safe. It took so much stress out of the equation.”

The CSC’s subsidized onsite daycare at their annual meet-and-greet is still the exception, not the rule for annual gatherings of industry, academia and special interest groups. Françoise Guilluy, senior project manager with International Conference Services Ltd. in Vancouver – whose company handles 15 to 20 conferences annually, with numbers ranging from 200 to 10,000 – says the number of companies who offer this service is spotty at best.

“It’s not black and white, and there’s no consistency to it,” Guilluy says. “From our experience, insurance, retail, medical and the financial sector are getting better, while fields like technology and associations are hit and miss.”

“When it’s an option for attendees, however, the feedback we get is overwhelmingly positive. People – especially the younger ones with families – want it. As the boomers move out of the workforce, we hope it’s going to become more commonplace.”

CSC president Kim Baines – who describes her industry as “very good at doing reports, having task forces, but … not very good at making change” – decided to act on offering daycare at their conferences because their members asked for it.

“We had a strategic plan developed in 2016 for our society and there were five major initiatives we identified to enhance diversity in our membership,” she says. “The top action item was getting child care into our national conference.”

Baines, who is assistant dean at the University of Western Ontario’s Faculty of Science, says offering childcare will enable more women – and men – to attend these events. “It’s just another part of our overall strategy to promote diversity and bolster the numbers of women and all ethnic groups at our annual gatherings.”

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She’s hopeful that offering childcare will allow more women and minorities greater flexibility to attend, and thereby increase their overall presence and heft at national events, including as plenary speakers.

“I’ve been going to conferences for 35 years and all-male panels – or ‘manels’ as they’re called – are a big issue,” Baines says. “At the Bachelor of Science level in chemistry the male-female ratio is 50-50, but at the faculty level it’s still only 30-per-cent female.

“We’ve made strides but we still have a long way to go. The trend to look after the needs of a younger, increasingly diverse workforce means we need to sit up and notice what they want and need. I remember when I was a young mother, and I brought my children, I was told to find my own help, that my kids weren’t their responsibility. I was very angry.”

Sherry Bondy, an Essex town councillor in Southwestern Ontario, is also advocating for daycare at annual conferences of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). In February, the mother of three (12, 2 and three months old) brought forward a motion asking AMO and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to provide user-pay daycare for attendees. It’s still being debated.

“The Federation of Canadian Municipalities offers it, so why don’t we?” the 36-year-old asks. “I was elected when I was 29 and I know some of the struggles of women who have children and are also on council. The same goes for young dads. It’s imperative we start accommodating them.”

A few Ontario municipalities are against the proposal, citing cost. But Bondy says it’s not going to cost taxpayers anything because she’s proposing a user-pay system.

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“I’ve only made four conferences in the last eight years because my partner and I just couldn’t swing it. He’d have to take a week off work, and use up valuable vacation time. I’d happily pay $50 for daycare to be able to attend,” she says.

“I don’t think I’m asking too much. I want to be independent and bring my kids along, and do my job just like everyone else.”

Baines says the CSC increased their conference’s registration fee a minimal amount to subsidize the cost of daycare. There was no push back.

Trudel and Lefebvre paid $30 a day, an amount that Trudel says he and his wife were “thrilled” to pay to have the peace of mind and flexibility for both of them to be able to attend.

“This gave us and the kids the chance to travel, work, and stay together as a family,” Trudel says. “It took so much of the stress out.”