Kiva co-founder Jessica Jackley says she was asked to leave the TEDWomen 2015 conference because she brought her 5-month-old baby. TED has always restricted its conferences to people over 16, in order to preserve “the intense, immersive, full-attention experience that people have come to expect” (and pay handsomely to expect). Jackley tweeted about the issue, and the conference brass responded decisively and positively, apologizing to Jackley, asking her to return, and setting up a lounge for parents of very young children to watch a simulcast of the conference. This sounds like a fantastic solution to this specific problem.
Jackley went on to write an essay for Medium in which she argues for what she calls a “culture shift” in how corporations deal with working parents. The United States is certainly in desperate need of such a culture shift—as stated about a million times here on Slate, the U.S. is one of only two countries that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave to its citizens. But some of the suggestions Jackley describes in her article might only make things worse for working parents and demolish what few boundaries we have left between work and home.
TED should help find baby-sitters for people who need them, Jackley says, and to accommodate people who want to blend their work and child-rearing completely, in order to “create a space where moms [can] both participate and parent, all at the same time.” She writes, “When, say, attending a conference with an infant, I’d propose that it’s very possible to do both, and do both well. Sure, some kids (and parents) are happier when the children just stay at home, but segregation isn’t always the best solution.”
At the same time, Jackley decries the “always-on, 24/7 behaviors” that plague our work culture and leave us all unhappy. Isn’t anticipating that parents of infants will want to bring those infants to conferences just perpetuating that 24/7 pressure? I would imagine most parents of very small children would prefer some time off from conferences, rather than having to blend the two. If bringing your infant becomes the norm, parents who would prefer to leave their kids at home might feel pressure to keep on working, baby in tow. Their supervisors could just look over and say, “Well, Suzy in accounting wore her 4-week-old to the Women in the World summit, so I don’t understand why you need so much time off.”
It goes without saying that there is an insane amount of privilege in the premise of this entire kerfuffle. TED2016 costs $8,500 to attend. Jackley describes the 2015 conference participants making all sorts of child care contortions to be able to attend TEDWomen: One “flew in her mother to care for her 18-month-old while she attended the conference; another brought her husband, who presumably had to take the day off of work as well, to be with their 8-week-old while she ducked in and out to breastfeed. Yet another hired a babysitter through her hotel, at nearly $200/day.” While I’m sure this was a great experience for all of them, participating in TED is not mandatory, and the conference isn’t a one-time event. I think getting paid maternity leave for the 88 percent of American women who don’t yet have it is a higher priority than making sure that the already wealthy women who go to TED can be furnished with their ideal child care arrangements.