Babies vs CIRM

How mathematician mothers changed an unfair policy

Posted by Viviane on June 8, 2019
Academia Diversity Motherhood

Long before I had any plan of becoming a mother myself, it seemed clear to me that defending young parents, especially young mothers, was a feminist issue worth fighting for. From my own observations, I could see that academic life, despise its flexibility, was not always adapted to family life. I could see that mothers especially had to pay a hard career prize. Now that I am about to experience it first hand in just few weeks, I take an ever more personal interest into this question, and yes, I am ready to fight!

Changing this goes with changing society as a whole. But as for many issues, we should not wait for society to change to get a better deal, we should instead change things ourselves, fight the unfair system, sometimes by taking small steps. It is always very reassuring to me when I hear my male colleagues saying things such as “I need to go early today to pick up my kids as school”, or “I won’t be there much this week because it is first week of kindergarten and I need to help my kid adapt”, or even “I don’t answer emails during week-ends, it’s family time”. It shows not only that they are taking their share of family duties but it also normalizes the presence of these duties in our academic life, challenging the ancient model of the middle aged man working long hours and traveling the world to conferences while the patient wife stays at home and take care of the house and the kids. It is not enough, though. What we need is an actual support system for young parents on top of a more accepting culture. It goes with more visibility. It should not be unusual to see kids around at conferences. We should challenge the image that motherhood and career (especially scientific career) are to be opposed. Since my pregnant belly is showing, I actually consider giving talks and living my mathematician life almost as a political statement.

In this post, I share a success story that is not mine. This is exactly the kind of small steps that we need, the small steps that change the system and make it a better and more inclusive environment. This is the success of mathematicians, female mathematicians, mother mathematicians, who stood against an unfair policy and made some concrete changes.


Have you heard of CIRM? If you are a French mathematician, probably yes. CIRM (Centre international de rencontres mathématiques) is a great place, a paradise for mathematicians, a little miracle in the context of budget cuttings, and hard days for fundamental research. Located a few kilometers from central Marseille, under the rocky hills leading to the beautiful Calanques, it is a center dedicated to hosting mathematical events all year long. The first time I went there, I was just beginning my master internship which later lead to my PhD and current career. Before going, I already knew I wanted to pursue in research. Spending one week at CIRM was probably the best way to convince me even more that research life was doing well with me. Since then, I have been back many times. Ask any French mathematician: it is hard to pass on an occasion to go to CIRM.

It is not easy to organize a conference there. You have to apply 2 years in advance, when a scientific committee selects the happy events. The good part is: most of the time this selection comes with a substantial funding from CIRM itself, which allows you to pay local expenses for most (if not all) of your participants. This part is very good. This is the reason I was able to attend so many CIRM events: I did not have to use my own (sometimes non existent) grants or to convince my department that it was worth paying for. I could just go and enjoy the mathematics (and the Calanques).

Attending CIRM events for a mathematicians is not only a matter of learning more mathematics, it is networking. It is a place where you meet potential recruiters, where you make yourself known, where you discuss with other members of your mathematical community. Basically, it is important for your career.

Babies and CIRM part one: no babies

A few years ago, I heard a story that stuck with me. I was attending a CIRM event, discussing with a woman I had just met. We were walking back from the Calanques enjoying the amazing sceneries. The woman, let’s call her Jane for the purpose of this article, was a bit older than me and held a permanent position in mathematics. The story she was telling me referred to a time where she was still a postdoc. At the time, she just had her first child. As she was taking care of her new born, she also knew that she had to find her next position and that she would not get any extension or help to compensate for the time of her maternity leave and duties as a young mother. There was a CIRM event in her field and she knew she had to attend: it was her chance to find a job. She was still nursing her baby and could not leave him for a whole week. Thankfully for her, her husband was very supportive and offered to come to the conference with her to look after the baby. This way, she could attend and still see her baby whenever it was needed.

So, Jane wrote to the CIRM explaining the situation. She said her husband and baby were coming with her and that she would cover the extra cost herself. She did not expect it to be a problem. She was wrong. CIRM promptly answered that this was not an option. They cited some “security” and “insurance” issues due to their status as a scientific center and their final words was that there was no way they could accommodate her request. She was taken aback by such an answer but it did not stop her to go. She decided to stay in a near-by hotel and attend anyway. By not staying at CIRM, she would indeed loose some of the networking time but she would still be there most of the day and her baby would not be very far away. This also meant that she had to pay for her stay, as the CIRM only covers rooms in their own facility. Again, thankfully, this was not too much of a problem as she happened to have a grant to cover that. Still, she had to explain the situation to the head of her department.

When she did, came the second stroke. The head of the department (a woman) could not stop her from going but she could belittle her and make her feel bad. She told her it was an irresponsible choice of her, that there was 0 interest for her to attend the conference if she was not staying at the center, that the (bad) choice of having a baby was her own and that she should just deal with the consequences.

There are so many wrongs here! The first one to blame is the CIRM policy. I am not saying that there were no insurance and legal issues that stopped CIRM from accommodating children, I am saying these were bad reasons, bad policies, hurtful to young parents and young mothers especially. Of course, the reaction of the department head is also awful. The question of who she was or in what department is irrelevant today: it could happen everywhere. The point of view of this woman is shared among many researchers, and it was backed up by the CIRM policy. Thankfully, Jane was strong and confident. Even though she was shaken by this response, she went to the conference anyway and this is where she was able to secure her next position even though she was staying at the hotel.

You have to understand the impact that such a story had on the young childless researcher I was at the time. When I hear a story like this, I hear: children are not welcome, young mothers are not welcome, if ever you decide to have a child, you will have to fight your way through. Of course, I knew there would be hurdles but I was not expecting such bad policies from CIRM, an institution that I had found so great in the math world.

Babies and CIRM part two: a feminist victory

This year, I was for the first time an organizer of a CIRM event. It turned out that one of the participant wanted to come with her one year old son. I was then surprised to discover that it was a non issue! CIRM was able to accommodate her: they even had specific rooms for families. When I arrived at the conference, I found her in the cafeteria, feeding her happy baby on her knees while other participants and CIRM staff would smile and playfully giggle at the little guy.

It was her third child and as I discussed with her, I discovered that she was quite the expert on bringing children to conferences, especially at CIRM. For years, she had suffered from the CIRM no-child policy. Still, she would come and stay in the student rooms near-by that are sometimes provided. She had found her own nanny in Marseille and would commute every day to bring her child to them. Last time she came, she discovered something had changed: the no-baby policy was over. Somehow, the CIRM had not been very vocal about changing their policy (maybe, they did not want to bring light to the the former shameful policy). She found out by attending an event, organizing her stay as she was used to and discovering later on that there were now those family rooms she could have used. And even more importantly: when under her care, her child was welcome to be inside the facility.

Indeed, the former policy was more than just not providing rooms: children were banned. The first reaction of another female participant when she saw the baby was fear: she was afraid that the mother and child would be kicked out. Her fear did not come from nowhere: she had seen nursing mothers being forced to eat dinner outside because the staff would freak out about having babies inside as it was not allowed! This is how bad it was…

So what changed? From what the CIRM told me, the decision was taken in 2015 to change the policy. It came from discussions among the directory board, the CNRS and whoever else is involved in funding and maintaining the CIRM. As they were renovating, they decided to add family studios and basically just changed their approach to the “problem”. What was the problem exactly? There were two things. Basically, they were afraid of their own liability in case of an accident involving a child. Indeed, even though their facility follows certain regulations, as a scientific center these regulations are not as strong as for a hotel or a vacation center. It turns out it is mostly fine as long as it is made clear that the children are under the parent responsibility. They also had a problem with the cafeteria and possible allergies. From what I understand, this was solved by posting a note with possible allergens in the cafeteria, which seems to be a requirement now anyway whether children are involved or not… And that was it. The same staff, which, a few years ago, was kicking mothers out, is now very welcoming and asking if they can bring anything special for the little guy and being very helpful and kind.

But this did not happen magically. I believe the CIRM did not see their policy as being sexist. Very few people want to be seen as sexist (or racist, or whatever). They believe they are being “neutral”, they refuse to see that their policy is hurting women and, in practice, stopping women from attending conferences. They dismiss the concern, they truly believe “there is nothing they can do”, they are just “following the regulations”, “it’s not up to them”. They are wrong of course: they could actually do something. This required some work, maybe some legal advice, maybe some money spent somewhere. The truth is, whoever was in charge, the men and women taking decisions, did not see that as important enough. Maybe some of them thought nursing mothers and babies had no business being at math conferences. Some others just thought is was “no big deal”. Maybe the ones who had different opinions were not in positions to voice them or could not change things just by themselves.

But things changed. They changed because women and allies did not give up. There were some open letters and petitions circulating. There were some pressure being made. At a time where supporting women in math was becoming “trendy”, the policy started to be bad publicity. When CIRM would brag about their actions for supporting women (like women speaker requirements, women events, etc), there would be people to remind them of their policy. I actually know one of these women. She is a senior researcher very much involved in defending women in mathematics globally. Once at a board meeting for conference centers, she did say to them: “these things are nice of course, but what about accepting children and nursing mothers inside your facility? This is your biggest issue!”. She told me the answer she got from the CIRM at the time was along the line of “What? This has nothing to do with that! This is a legal issue we cannot do anything about”. Well, they could, and at some point, they did.

My conclusion is: we should never give up. When we see unfair policies, when we see things that are wrong, we should voice it, especially when we have a position which allows us to do it (it is much easier to voice concerns and resist when we have a permanent job than when we are a student or in a precarious position). Even more importantly, we should listen. We should never dismiss the concerns and issues faced by others. Indeed, man or woman, if we DO hold a little bit of power inside the institution, we are probably not the ones affected first hand by bad policies. We might not win every time, we might not win today, but if we let it pass, then nothing will ever change. Things can change, the CIRM changed.

As a bonus, here is the open letter written a few years ago by a female mathematician who could not attend a CIRM event due to this absurd policy. It is not the only one that was written. I am aware of at least one other which circulated through emails among French mathematicians.