When I decided to have a baby, I knew I would face new challenges also in my professional life. I knew in particular that it would probably uncover some new feminist battles as I am aware that gender roles and bias are worsened by motherhood. Still, it felt to me that I would be quite safe. In the end, I am in a very privileged situation. I have a permanent position, a great co-parent, good conditions on my maternity leave, supportive colleagues. My career, even though it is still beginning, is going well from every perspective. I work in an area where women are under-represented but, within my mathematical community, I had always felt supported and even though we are far from being perfect, we are also far from being “the worst”.
So when I had to get into what I consider my first ever “baby battle” before my baby was even born, it came to me as an unpleasant surprise! And the blow came from a place I was not expecting, from my very own community, from people without bad intentions who took a decision they probably felt was “not that important”. These people are colleagues, men and women, I truly respect. My goal today is not to point fingers and be mad. I believe my colleagues were wrong on this one and I want to tell them why. I want to raise awareness on these “small issues” and “little battles”. I want to make us all aware that we have to be careful, to listen, to discuss, and to make efforts so that the system can change and become a better place for everyone.
Data shows that women tend to leave academia when they become a parent much more than men. Sometimes, they are actively pushed away (I do know a postdoc whose contract was not renewed due to her pregnancy). Sometimes, they slowly drift away because bias, social expectations, and material conditions make it more difficult for them to be considered as valued scientist. I have no intention to leave, I have no intention to drift away. This time, it was about giving a talk. No, it would not have been the end of the world not giving it. It would not have pushed me away from academia. It would probably have had very little consequences on my career. But giving this talk was important for me and that should be enough reason. By my actions and my pushiness, I am also forcing some discussions, moving things, and, hopefully, making things easier for other women facing the same situation.
I am a researcher in algebraic combinatorics. I have been in this field for almost ten years, since I was a Master student. As such, I attend many national and international events to meet my peers and share my research. One of this event is the FPSAC conference. It gathers around 200 people. It is organized every year in a different country at the beginning of the summer and has become part of my yearly routine as a researcher, to the point where my family is often asking “Where is FPSAC this year?”. I attended for the first time in 2011 (in Iceland, that was great!) and have been attending every year since up to now.
It is a conference I always enjoy, not only because of the science, but because it is an occasion to catch up with colleagues from around the world, to meet the new members of our mathematical community and to forge great memories walking through foreign cities with fellow mathematicians.
Another important aspect of the conference is the publication of its acts and the resulting presentations of recent results. It works like this. In the fall (the deadline is often around November), you send an extended abstract which is a 12 pages mathematical paper on your recent research. A committee of around 30 researchers chosen each year read through the papers and select some of them to be presented at the conference. The conference usually receives between 200 and 300 papers and selects about 100 of them. On those 100, between 25 and 30 are presented as “talks”, the other ones are “posters”. A talk is a 20 minutes presentation in front of the whole audience (there are no parallel sessions). A poster is something that looks like this, presenting your results in an “attractive way”. During the conference, there will be poster sessions where you will get to stand in front of your poster and explain your results to whoever is interested.
From a scientific point of view both posters and talks are interesting. In a talk, in theory, you reach more people as you speak to everyone. On the other end, when you present your poster, you get to talk to the attendees most interested in your research and you can enter into more specific details. Still, every one agrees on one thing: a talk is more prestigious. It is assumed that the “best” papers are chosen to be presented as talks, the ones that have the potential to be of interest for a wider audience. Until this year, I had submitted 6 papers in total to the conference, 5 of which have been selected, always as posters. I am not running after awards and recognition but I must admit that giving a talk at FPSAC has long been on the list of things I would like to achieve.
Another detail that will be of importance. It is quite common that a paper is written by more than one author. As strange as it might sounds for people coming from other fields such as experimental science, we have no notion of first author: authors are listed alphabetically. Nevertheless, for the sole purpose of the conference, we have a notion of presenting author. This is the person who submits the paper to the conference and who is supposed to give the talk or present the poster if ever the paper gets accepted. For example, on a given year, it is allowed to be an author on multiple papers, but you can be the presenting author only once.
Now that I have described the general context, I can tell you what happened between me and FPSAC this year. We are in November 2018. I am quite exhausted. I have had a very busy semester professionally including heavy teaching and important presentations, on top of a few rough, kind of emotional roller-coaster, months on my personal life. I am not at home. My last “big thing” of the semester is to spend one week in Clermont-Ferrand where I have been invited to give a lecture on my research. It is also the week of the FPSAC deadline.
During the day, I attend the conference and give my lecture. I often have to spend part of the day reviewing my notes for my next lecture (I speak 3 times in total). When I am not, I exchange emails with my (male) collaborator C.C. with whom I intend to submit a paper at FPSAC. This is about an ongoing research that has been going on for two years already. We now have enough results to submit it at the conference. With the deadline approaching, I spend most of my evenings polishing the last bits, writing up some parts, making beautiful figures.
At the same time, I am starting to feel these weird symptoms. I basically feel sick all the time. It is not very strong, just some kind of mild and disturbing stomachache as if I was coming down with something. At first, I blame the exhaustion. But as the symptoms become more and more specific, another explanation comes to my mind. When I take the train back to Paris, relieved to finally get some time to rest, I have just submitted my FPSAC paper and I am rightfully (and happily) convinced to be pregnant.
There was no debate as who would be the presenting author of the FPSAC paper. Not only C.C. was already submitting something else but the research was actually a follow-up of some project of mine. Somehow, I had been the one “pushing” for it even though we both took lots of pleasure working on it. It is a project I am particularly fond of and quite proud of. I am always hopping for the best when I am submitting a paper but this time, I was actually convinced that it was better than my previous ones. And I knew it would make a great talk. That was my hope. At the same time, I could “do the math”, if the pregnancy was to be confirmed, I would have to miss the conference. “Well, I tell myself, let’s see what happens, it’s probably going to be a poster anyway”.
Comes February. I am now 4 months into my pregnancy. I have passed the trying first trimester and things are going very well. It is starting to show, I have told most people at work. I know already that I will miss FPSAC: the baby is due the week right after the conference. I have also declined two invitations for other events this summer. Actually, as a very frequent science traveler, I have had to quite re-organize my habits. I am taking a few trips in March and April and will be staying home when I reach the third trimester.
Then I receive the FPSAC notification: our paper has been accepted as a talk! This is great news but I cannot help but feel a little pinch. It is the first time that one of my papers is accepted as a talk at FPSAC, and it is the first time I cannot attend. Well, life is life! I write to C.C. I announce to him all the great news at once: we have a talk and I am pregnant. Of course I ask: can he go and give the talk as I won’t be able to? It is a little sacrifice but I don’t see any other way, and as he is actually looking for a job, this is quite fair in the end. C.C. is happy for me and he is happy for our paper. On the other hand, we have a technical issue. HIS paper is also accepted as talk. The FPSAC policy is quite clear that they do not want people giving multiple talks. This is why they have this rule on presenting authors. Well, “let’s discuss that next week”. Indeed C.C. is visiting to work on another project.
At this point we have a “happy people problem”: too many talks and too many babies. Indeed, C.C. and I have a talk, I am the presenting author but cannot make it because I am having a baby. C.C. has a talk with another collaborator V.P. (who is also a long time collaborator of mine and a friend) where he is presenting author. V.P. could take this talk if he wasn’t having a baby himself. His baby is due in May so, in theory, he can travel in early July. But quite understandably, he does not want to have any obligation to go to the conference or to burden himself with a talk when he’d rather be with his wife and baby.
As I am facing this situation, an idea comes to my mind: why don’t I give my talk? Indeed I cannot go to the conference, but I will be at home. If my baby isn’t born yet, I could very well give the talk remotely. C.C. would be at the conference as a backup plan. This would allow everyone to be presenting authors as originally planned. This would make more sense scientifically speaking and it would give me the great pleasure of presenting my research. The more I think of it, the more I like it. I bring the idea to C.C. and V.P as we’re having dinner in Paris with other researchers. Everyone likes it, it seems like the perfect solution. I decide to write to the organizers.
I am quite an optimistic person. I did not foresee any big problem. Maybe there will be some reluctance due to the technical difficulties but we are in February and we have until July to figure it out. I wonder if that’s already been done at FPSAC. I think not, but I am not sure. Anyway, I have seen it at other conferences and it does not look like such a big deal. I send my first email not knowing I am actually starting a debate which will have repercussions not only on me but on the conference as the whole.
Now, I stop the story and give you the email exchanges that took place in the following month where you feel my candor slowly turn into strong annoyance / sheer furor. I took the liberty of publishing the emails I received from the FPSAC team. It felt to me that it was the most honest way to convey our interactions. I have only made very small edits to remove any names except mine. After the first email, I was talking with specific people inside the FPSAC committees but I will refer to them only at “FPSAC” as the object is not to point at any specific colleague (I know personally the people I have been interacting with, they are people I respect and appreciate very much).
From Viviane Pons to FPSAC, Feb. 25
Dear FPSAC organizers,
I am very happy that our paper * * * * has been accepted as a talk. I am supposed to be the presenting author of the paper. And indeed, C.C. is already presenting author for another paper along with * * * * .
Nevertheless, I have very good and happy reasons not to be present at FPSAC: I am pregnant and my child is to be born on July 12, which makes it impossible for me to travel the week before. Still, I would very much like to give my talk through video conference. I have never seen that at FPSAC but it seems to me that it should be feasible and would send a good message to all young parents and parents to be for whom traveling is an issue.
Ideally, the talk should be planned early in the week (Monday or Tuesay) to be further away from my due date. My co-author C.C. will be present at the conference. In case I cannot give my talk (because I’m having a baby) he can give it for me. His own talk should be planned later on during the week. This way, if ever he gives my talk, he would have time to be replaced by one of his co-authors if they are present (or through video!). Worst case scenario, C.C. gives two talks.
Anyway, I hope we find a suitable solution.
thank you very much
From FPSAC to Viviane Pons, Feb. 26
Dear Prof. Pons,
the reason that you give for proposing a video conference is of course very good (and we are happy for you!), but some of us feel that it would not work very well, and also that it may set an unwelcome precedent. We think that a better solution might be for C.C. to give the talk instead of you, and for V.P. to give a talk instead of C.C. That way, V.P. would present a talk and a poster, but we already have such a case. Would such a solution be acceptable to all involved?
With best wishes,
From Viviane Pons to FPSAC, Feb. 26
why do you think that would give an unwelcome precedent or would not work well? On the contrary, I think that we have now good technical solutions for such things. I understand that it will not be as good as being present but with some preparation it can go smoothly. (You can plan the talk after a break to set things up, we can try the system the week before, etc). I don’t think speakers will stop going to the conference when they realize they can give their talk remotely, everyone agrees that it is not ideal. But I think it would be very good for FPSAC if this could be an option when people have very strong reasons like myself. There are many reasons why people cannot always travel (having children is one), and when the reasons are good, then they should be supported now that we have suitable technical solutions.
I first thought of your solution. But actually, V.P. is not yet certain of being present at FPSAC. Indeed, he is having a baby himself not long before! Also, I must say that I have been working on this research project for a long time. I believe it is very good and I am very proud of presenting it to FPSAC. Indeed, it is the first time that one of my papers is accepted as a talk. Of course, even if we go with the video, there are no guarantees that I will be giving the talk. If my baby arrives early, I, obviously, won’t be able to do it and C.C. will take my place. But, if I’m in good health and still waiting for the baby to be born, then I will be keen on presenting the result myself. Indeed, from what I have noticed in the past, the credit you get from your own results is much better when you are the speaker (otherwise, people tend to forget about your participation).
As a mathematician and a future parent, I believe that it is not always easy to balance family life and academic life. Data shows that it is even more difficult for women. I believe that it is our role as part of the academic world to make it easy and help build an inclusive environment. With that in mind, I really hope you reconsider your position.
From FPSAC to Viviane Pons, Feb. 27
I understand your position, and personally do not object to your proposal. So I will let my fellow organizers to express their hesitations about accepting such a solution.
From FPSAC to Viviane Pons, March 13
Dear Viviane and C.,
We (the FPSAC 2019 chairs) carefully considered your request to give a video presentation at FPSAC, but decided it was something we needed to take up with the permanent committee. The permanent committee also had a thoughtful discussion and decided not to allow any video presentations this year. Therefore, we will schedule C.C. to give the talk on your joint work. If possible, it would be nice if C.C.’s other presentation was given by a co-author. In case his other co-authors also cannot attend, we will happily schedule his two talks on different days. C.C., would you keep us posted on the other talk so we update the schedule accordingly?
Viviane, we will miss seeing you at FPSAC this year, but look forward to seeing you in the near future.
From Viviane Pons to FPSAC, March 13
To be honest, I am very disappointed by this decision. When I asked the organizing committee, given the reasons, I really did not think this was going to be a problem. Instead, it looks like I am starting a revolution! I feel like I am loosing time and energy arguing about things that I should just not have to argue about. I still don’t understand what could be the concerns that are strong enough as to not letting me give my talk. My only guess is that the committee is making problems that do not even exist yet. Video talks exist in other conferences. I organized a conference last month and one of our guest speakers gave her talk in video because it was what made the more sense.
I asked the committee about giving a video talk because it was what was best, not only for me, but considering the different people involved and the science behind them. Indeed, I had discussed this decision with not only C.C. but also V.P. and the other co-authors and they were all very enthusiastic. From the mathematical point of view, it just makes sense that C.C. gives the talk about the paper with V.P. and all and that I give the talk about our paper: this is why I submitted ours and he submitted theirs. The fact that the committee would rather have C.C. give two talks than letting me giving mine just does not make any sense to me.
It is very nice that you are happy for me, that you are going to miss me. But what I needed from FPSAC was not being happy, it was support and I did not get it. See, I managed to submit this paper with C.C. while I was away being an invited speaker at a research school. It was also the week I realized I was pregnant, which meant I was feeling sick every day. And still, I was able to finish the work. This year, I am organizing at least three conferences and taking many trips while I still can. The first real concession I have to make is to not give my talk at FPSAC, and unless my baby is a few weeks early, this won’t be because of him, this will be because of FPSAC.
From C.C. to FPSAC, March 13
I totally support Viviane and kindly ask you to reconsider your position.
From V.P. to FPSAC, March 14
I want to add my little stone to this castle.
My partner is a fellow of * * * *. In the fall, she was supposed to present a plenary talk at an international conference in Taiwan, gathering about 150 participants. Two weeks before her trip, she learned she was pregnant and, as she felt quite sick, she considered it was not reasonable to travel. When they learned the problem, the conference proposed her to give a video-conference. Although it is clearly not the perfect conditions (few interactions with the other participants, questions are more complicated to deal with, etc), everything worked well and she was very pleased to have this possible substitute to a normal talk.
I believe that what epidemiologists can do, combinatorialists can :-)
Organizing Viviane’s talk will of course create a precedent, but it is the kind of precedent we want. I am sure that everyone will still prefer to come to the conference and present their talks in future FPSAC. It will just open the door to the possibility to present video-conferences in very exceptional cases.
When I had to decide what kind of mathematics I wanted to specialize in, I choose combinatorics partly because I liked the topic, but also because I considered that it was a friendly, healthy and modern area, with a good proportion of young researchers and a relative gender equilibrium (not perfect, but compared to other areas of mathematics…). I believe that we should take the opportunity that Viviane offers us to show once more that combinatorics is friendly, modern and healthy!
These were the last emails we exchanged with the committee. We never heard from them after that. It is not easy to describe my state of mind at this point. I was quite furious. I was also exhausted and emotionally affected. All these interactions required lots of my energy and mental space. I had to push back and argue against colleagues, to put myself in a difficult situation. I had the feeling that I was asking “too much” even though it did not seem to me that I was asking a lot. I remember being very distracted on the day I sent the last email. I could not stop thinking about the whole thing. Thankfully, as you can read in the last emails sent by C.C. and V.P., I had great support from colleagues which helped me move forward and start my new plan.
Something was clear: I could not let it pass and do nothing. Whenever I decide, I can be very determined and I don’t appreciate being told “no” without a very good reason. And here, no reasons were given, which was particularly upsetting. I gathered information here and there. From what I understood, this was a mix between technical difficulties and general concerns about a video talk being not as good as a live one. Basically, people were open to the idea but thought that this year was maybe not ideal (when will it be?). The room would not offer good quality interactions. They somehow decided that anyway, I would not fully benefit from the talk (because of the bad technical conditions) and so it was not worth the trouble.
I wish I had been part of these discussions. I wish my opinion on whether or not it was beneficial for me had been heard. If they had come to me saying “We are not opposed to the idea but the conditions are this and that and the organizer has already a lot to deal with and we are afraid of this, etc.” I would have had solutions! I would have been ready to offer a compromise. I would have offered the solution which I actually put in place in the end. I am a conference organizer myself, I can understand technical difficulties and time management. I actually use a lot of MY own time to help OTHERS.
But they did not. I heard they were still discussing the possibility to change their policies for the coming years, so I decided not to wait for their approval. I decided to prove my point and change things myself. Indeed, even though I am not part of FPSAC permanent committee, I am part of the FPSAC community. I have been attending the conference for years, I have had many of my papers accepted, I have been part of the program committee. I feel that this conference belongs to me just as much as it belongs to the permanent committee, just as much as it belongs to its many regular attendees. The decisions it takes on its policies directly affect me and others and I will make my voice heard when I feel it is necessary.
I have heard sentences like “we all missed conferences because of children, what’s the big deal? It’s not the end of the world”. Well, no it’s not. I am actually missing the conference already. I am well aware that any arrangement I make won’t be as good as being at the conference in terms of scientific interactions. I am ok with it. But I don’t see why I should renounce more than I ought. Giving the talk, even without handling the questions, even without talking to people during the break, it will be better than not giving the talk. I will be part of it somehow.
And it’s not only about me. If we say no to me this year, who are we going to say yes to? When will we have the “perfect situation”? Next year, it might happen to a student, to a postdoc, for whom giving the talk will be much more important than it is for me career-wise. And maybe, probably, it won’t be the exact same situation. Will they have the gut to ask again? Will the policy have changed? We need to show, not only with words, that we are able to accommodate, that we are flexible, that we are inclusive.
So I decided that instead of asking, I would just do. I would just show that it was possible. I will create a precedent so hopefully, it becomes easier for the ones after me who might face similar situations. My way of changing things would not be a petition, or an uproar, or an endless debate, it would be to make a very good talk.
What I did
I pre-recorded the talk. I created a perfect 18 minutes video (leaving time for set up and questions) presenting our results. I was lucky to have access through my spouse to a professional team who recorded and edited the video. I even added subtitles. I obtained something of high quality, almost better than me being there in person.
As the conference approached, I felt quite excited about the talk. I had sent the video to C.C. and he was taking care of the last details. I had also “tested” the video on a few colleagues who could not attend the conference and they were very enthusiastic. I knew I had made a good job. I am an experienced speaker and I am always putting efforts into my talks, but for this one, I had put even more.
The talk was scheduled 8 days before my due date. As my baby seemed to be of the patient kind, he was not born yet. I was actually lucky enough to be in perfect shape, enjoying the freedom of my maternity leave and living my life in Paris almost as usual. On the day of the talk, I was at the swimming pool. Precisely, I was on the rooftop of the Joséphine Baker boat-swimming pool by the Seine (great place). I had some of my friends present at the conference updating me on WhatsApp about how it was all going. I was basically able to follow my own talk remotely. C.C. started presenting. He quickly announced that it would be a “special talk” as we had found a way to make me the presenting author even though I was at home being very pregnant. Then he turned the video on.
I must say that giving this talk remotely was very rewarding. I got instant support and feedbacks through social media. My friends recorded the questions, which I listened to later on in the evening. I didn’t feel excluded from the event, I felt I was part of it as much as I could be in my situation. I was never sad to miss FPSAC this year. By looking at my usual calendar, no matter when the baby was due, I would have missed something. And with a young child at home, I will have to be much more selective in the events I can attend that I have been so far. But being able to present this specific research to this specific conference made me feel good. It helped start this new adventure on a very good vibe.
For the people in the room, I believe it was a nice experience too. Most of them were not aware of the whole controversy. I made no mention of it in the video and neither did C.C. They just saw a good talk, a bit special maybe, but still a math talk. They asked questions and started thinking about our conjectures. The fact that it was pre-recorded and given in such a way was amusing but not so extraordinary in the end. Still, it sent a message to everyone present. It showed it was possible. It showed to the young women present that you could be part of conference sometimes even when you are 8 months pregnant (you don’t have to though, please do what it best for you!). It reminded everyone that having children is part of life for many of us and, as a community, we have to make it work somehow!
I heard that the permanent committee of the conference had a discussion earlier in the week about the video conference policy (before they saw the talk). They decided to be more flexible in the future. I know changing the status quo is not always easy even though I feel that we have to sometimes if we want to shift our academic culture into a better one. I hope this is what I do by giving this talk and writing this post.
I am aware that the reasons I am able to do what I did is because I am actually very much privileged myself. In particular, I have a permanent position and I feel that committee members are my peers, not my superiors, which gives me the confidence to challenge their decisions sometimes. My situation in academia has never been threatened, I have always felt included. I also have great allies. In this case, I would not have been able to carry my idea out without the full support of my co-author C.C. and having other supportive colleagues and friends was a big help. It made it possible for me to turn an upsetting event into something positive and hopefully making things better for everyone in the long run.
And if you’re curious about it, here is the video I made!