I distributed the following open letter on March, 4th 2015 to several
different organisations representing women in science - like
Association Femmes et Sciences,
Femmes Ingénieurs etc. I was asked to put it on a webpage in order to be able to refer to it, so here it is.
Ilka Agricola, Marburg, 4.3.2015.
in October 2014, I was invited to attend a Meeting at CIRM in Marseille, the "Centre international de rencontres mathematiques", a conference center devoted to mathematics.
My first visit to the CIRM was as a Ph.D. student - I was single, no kids. I enjoyed my stay very much, the atmosphere for exchange and research, the beautiful surroundings. So I was looking forward for visiting the CIRM again.
However, this was not possible. My personal situation has since then changed: I am married, and we have an 11 year old son. My husband is a professor of mathematics as well, working in the same area. So in fact, I have to correct my statement: We were both invited by the organizers to be regular participants of this meeting. We therefore informed the organizers and the CIRM that we would like to bring our son. Of course, we would pay his expenses and organize a "baby sitter" for him, so that he would be occupied during the day.
Our son attended his first conference when he was 3 weeks old. Whenever possible, we leave him at home with suitable child care. But as most scientists, we do not have any relatives in the city where we were appointed professors, so it's not always possible. Our son has accompanied us to research stays all over Europe, South America and Asia. We're great at finding baby sitters wherever we go. We never had any problems, our son was welcome wherever we went. It's clear that we organized things always in such a way that he would not be a burden to organizers or other participants.
But at CIRM, all my past experience in organizing two professors and a kid was useless. I was informed sharp by the CIRM administration:
"For security reasons, children are not admitted at CIRM".
I first thought that this was a joke - our son is not dangerous, after all? But it became clear that this is dead serious. It is claimed that the insurance of CIRM "does not cover children", whatever it means. Now, being German, I have more insurances than I would ever need in my life: liability insurance, accident insurance... you name it. I offered to sign anything desired that I would cover all damages my son would cause. Nothing to do.
Instead, the CIRM administration started an outrageous game of shifting duties - weeks, almost months of e-mail exchanges followed. For example, we were told that we should try to find accomodation at the "Cite Universitaire" of the University of Marseille. Guess what they told us ? "We regret that our housing is not appropriate for families". More phone calls, more e-mails - to organizers, CIRM staff, CIRM director etc.
Finally, we gave up and cancelled our participation. And I sent a complaint to the "conseil scientifique de l'Institut National de maths du CNRS", who is part of the scientific committees supervising the CIRM. And, all of a sudden, we were offered to live at CIRM in a separate building. However, our son was still not allowed to enter the CIRM or to have breakfast and dinner there. But then we didn't want to go anymore.
Now, I understand that in the past, people may have abused of the CIRM facilities to have a nice holiday with their families - allegedly, I would think that these would have been male participants bringing their wife and children.
But our situation was different. Being both scientists in the same area, our only option for participating was to travel with our son. It is to be expected that this constellation will be even more common in the future, with more and more women in mathematics. Other situations can easily be imagined where there is just no alternative to bringing a child - a baby being breast-fed, an ill child, a single parent...
So, for me the current CIRM policy means effectively that I am being hindered to "practise" my job as scientist. And this is something that we, female mathematicians, should not accept. It is not a solution that perhaps, once in a while, one of us is successful at making enough ruckus to get an exceptional permission to bring a child - a Ph.D. student or less pushy person would not have succeeded. The policy itself NEEDS to be changed!!!
I am full professor now, I do not need to attend some singular event - if I'm not wanted, I don't go, period. But if I had never been allowed to bring my son anywhere - I would probably not be full professor today!
I firmly describe myself as being "francophile" - I attended a French Lycée in Munich, I have a French Baccalauréat C (high school degree) and even was hounored by a second price at the Concours Général des Lycées. I have some experience with French administration. Hence, this experience really makes me very sad.
I believe that French women mathematicians should urgently advocate a change in policy at CIRM. I would consider it bad style to do this as a foreigner - so, I hereby would like to encourage YOU, mathématiciennes françaises, to fight for working conditions that respect the situation of women in science! Our daily juggling of different responsibilities is already difficult, there is no need to make it harder by rules that are not up to date.
In the meantime, we were both invited to another CIRM meeting. We declined immediatly, it doesn't make sense to repeat the same story over again. Again, I would very much have liked to attend this "rencontre" and meet my colleagues. This shows that the problem will stay if nothing is being changed!
With my warmest regards from Marburg,
Full Professor of Global Analysis & Differential Geometry
Dean of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science