I used to go to my own annual conferences on internet in education. Two plenary presentations, six workshops in four days seemed normal. Non-stop communication, daily help with back and forth translation, watching over accompanying students, excursions, impromptu meetings, project and future collaboration discussions were all part of the package. Exotic food, amazing national customs and costumes, jet lag, different climates and time zones included for good measure. It has always been a lot of work and a lot of fun. Gradually I managed to raise funds and receive travel grants for my younger colleagues and students, which was immensely gratifying and of course quite strenuous since they needed lots if guidance and help. And so it went. Afterwards I would deal with the inevitable bureaucracy, the financial reports, and the new plans. And I would share with my colleagues by conducting workshops, seminars and making reports at national conferences; I would also write a lot for various publications.
What happened next? Well, all our kids finished school. My younger colleagues became more experienced and took up some promising projects. Suddenly we found ourselves with some time and some money to spare, and my husband said it was time to finally attend one of his conferences together. So I went as an accompanying person for the first time in my life. It was an odd experience initially. All around me were participants who spoke the language I barely understood (not being a scientist and prone to giving my own fantastic interpretation to terms like “excited media” or “spin effect”). There was another important difference: while in education, most of the work force is female, in science most of the participants are men. True, the younger they are the more balance there is. But then like sticks to like more or less, so every night when we settled down to a table for dinner there’d usually be about a dozen men and just one woman, me. “And what do you, are you also a scientist?” No, I’d reply, I am a simple Ph.D. in English language and literature. Hmm. Like, it was clear that one could not discuss para-hydrogen or naphthols with me. Hyper-polarization? Er… Thankfully there were always plenty of people who’d visited us, so they knew that I was not of their ilk. We’d comfortably talk about children if any, and culture, and literature. One of them men would invariably mention shopping as the one activity ALL women are supposed to be interested in. I memorized his face and name and stayed away.
Life has taught me that women may contribute a very useful ingredient to any conversation at the end of the day. Thanks to my father I call it background noise. After a long day listening to reports people get tired. As I am a professional chatterbox conditioned to talk for 90 minutes even in my sleep (all that lecturing at university), I can easily pickup some common threads and provide some useful digressions from the main theme of the conference. It’s quite uncanny how quickly students seem to sense that I am a teacher, and flock to my side with their questions about life in general. Young researchers would ask about the possibility to have a family and do science and research. Once somebody mentions that we have three kids and they ascertain that we are both Ph.D., we seem to become gurus or know-it-alls in their eyes. We are not but we never tell them that. Young people should not be disappointed. “Sure, you can do that. See, we are still human”, I tell them kindly.
What I never expected nor thought about prior to attending a conference as an accompanying person was all the attention I might get from the predominantly male audience. Imagine this: two hundred participants, and just one woman, and that’s not a scientist but a lowly accompanying person. During the week I walk around studying whatever city it is. I come down to breakfast wearing a different outfit every morning, though I suspect nobody notices that. Then there is the grand finale, the conference dinner at a nice place. I remember to bring a nice dress with some accessories and a comfortable pair of shoes with me. Put on the dress, necklace and shoes, comb my hair, dab a little perfume, grab my clutch. “Why is everybody staring at us?” my husband asked. “Because I’m the only woman present”, I said. He pointed at some female students dressed more or less like Bruce Willis in “Die Hard”. I elaborated: “I’m the only one wearing a pretty dress with bare shoulders”. When I looked at the conference photos later, I saw my own bare shoulders and back and nice hairdo snapped by many photographers. It seems funny and yet it is universal I suppose. A good relaxation time when people may forget about serious stuff and just enjoy the moment is very important. Contrary to popular opinion scientists are not crazy, and they like a good dinner as well as anybody else.
You live and you learn. At one recent event I saw that there was at least one other woman accompanying her husband, so I looked forward to seeing her at the dinner. But she did not appear at breakfast or lunch, I only got a glimpse of her hurrying somewhere every morning. Obviously I was not the only person puzzled, for somebody asked the man at lunch why his wife was not here with us. “She wanted to come and see this town, so I bought the tickets, booked the hotel and gave her an allowance. I didn’t pay for her breakfast, lunch or dinner, and she is not coming to the conference dinner”, was the astounding reply. Nobody commented. Frankly, it has never occurred to me that my husband would take me with him and not pay the accompanying person fee. I gave him my profound thanks, and I repeat those now every time we go somewhere. I shared the experience with our kids and with many acquaintances, without naming the actual person. It was a great insight for which I am duly thankful. I now appreciate my status of the accompanying person more. Thankfully so far this is the only such example. Usually the reality is rather different and more in our favor. “Professor, we want to invite you to your next conference, and we wanted to arrange for housing with the university, but they only have single occupancy rooms, and we all know that you prefer to travel with your wife, so of course we’ll arrange something for you!” Last time I checked there is no shortage of hotels in Canada; some of them are quite close to universities, a.k.a. conference venues. It feels nice to be recognized as a lawful conference participant.