Athene Donald recently had a post about the dearth of women invited speakers at meetings. An issue that was raised is that women, when invited, seem to decline more often than men, and the question is why. I can't speak for all women, but this got me thinking about why I decline these invitations.
When I was a junior faculty member and all such talks counted for a lot on my CV, I would pretty much accept nearly all invitations. Invited talks are like getting credit: when you are young and you need it, no one will give it to you; when you are old, established, with a paid-off house and ample savings and no need for credit, everyone bends over backwards to give it to you. Same thing with invited talks: nobody gives them to the young'uns, who'd jump at the chance and whose CVs the talks would positively enhance.
My travel for this year thus far includes:
1 NSF panel
2 program review meetings for another federal agency
4 invited lectures
4 invited talks at conferences
8 declined invited talks at conferences
So why do I accept some talks and decline others? I suppose it is easiest to start with why I do accept an invited talk these days, where "these days" means I have tenure and my career is doing fine. I generally go to a conference if (1) it is one of the 2-3 conferences that are very specifically in my field (even so, I prefer one of these over the others, and usually go to that one but send students to others), (2) it is a closely related field where I usually have something new to learn that benefits my research directly, or (3) I go because I owe it to the organizers (e.g. I declined a talk a couple years ago on account of pregnancy, and the organizer is a respected colleague, so this year I will do it even though it's an international trip and it's a pain and they are not paying). Also, I will do invited talks at one of the big meetings such as the APS March Meeting.
As for lectures, I generally give them at the places where I know someone, or where I want to meet someone. Giving a lecture is usually accompanied by a day or two of non-stop meetings and talking with many faculty and students, and can be quite exhausting. Early on in my career, it was easier to get invited lectures than conference invited talks, so I used to jump on every opportunity to give one. Now I do them sparingly and, whenever possible, I try to give multiple talks back-to-back or to host someone at my university instead.
So why do I decline invited talks, or avoid going to conferences in general? Why exactly people avoid travel differs for different people, but I can say what my reasons are: some are professional, some personal.
Professional: There are a couple of communities where I am well known and I would dare say well respected, and those conferences are generally enjoyable, even if I know the community a little too well and, from the standpoint of learning new things, there may not be much, since I pretty much know exactly what everyone else is doing. But then there are the conferences where I am either unknown or semi-known, but where I could in principle learn new things. That's where glorious sexism rears its ugly head and it has become really tiresome to battle.
Perhaps this situation is a little similar to how gay people have to constantly come out to everyone new they meet, over and over again, because everyone's default expectation is that they are straight. (I am in no way trying to downplay how hard this must be, I can only imagine.) My experience at new meetings is that the default expectation, perhaps because I am still a youngish woman, is that I don't have much interesting or important to say. Presumed incompetent until proven otherwise. In some communities people are more hostile than in others. While I was more junior, I needed the travel, the exposure, and I dutifully endured, convincing random unpleasant male scientists over and over that I in fact knew what I was doing. Sometimes even random junior schmucks also think themselves superior just because; perhaps that extra head they have contains some additional brain matter? Whatever. These days I can afford not to do that any more; if I go to a conference once and don't like the vibe, I won't go again. Also, I don't play all that nice any more with Douchey McDouchersons; that may or may not make me popular in certain communities. Bottom line, these days I avoid this type of irritation if I can help it. Life is too short to constantly fight for approval of random new people. It boils down to: should I pay money to again endure the drivel of some self-important colleagues or should I spend that time cuddling with my kids? Gee, I wonder which one I should choose...
And last but not least, many invited talks these days come with very few or no expenses paid. Therefore, unless it's a conference I would attend anyway, or it somehow directly relates to what I work on or would like to, I don't go. Of the 8 declination this year, most featured some combination of general irrelevance to my work and being too expensive/organizers not paying enough.
Personal/family: My DH and I have three kids, ages 2-13. They have different activities and schedules that require two parents to juggle. Now, one can say that when I am out of town there can be a part-time nanny to help, and that's perfectly valid. But, at this point in my career I can afford to say that I don't care about travel enough to go through the trouble of finding part-time care for these situations. The few families I know who do have part-time drop-off/pick-up care mostly complain that the schedules don't work out and that the care providers whom they really like cannot make the hours needed. Anyway, I am am able and even happy to scale back my travel, but I don't think this is the right approach for people who are still junior and who really should travel. All I can say is that where I am now in my career, I am comfortable blowing off some travel for increased sanity of myself, my kids, and my husband. When I am gone, they are stressed as things are disrupted, but I am not gone too often so the disruption is still just a disruption, not the norm.
All my kids have been in daycare centers since an early age and I have great respect for childcare professionals. When people talk about reliable or trustworthy childcare, for most people that means "someone I have known a long time" or "someone recommended by the people I know and trust." When I was a junior faculty member, I was on my own with just my eldest for the first two years on the tenure track. During those years, traveling was really hard, and my husband would fly in to take care of the kid while I traveled. In principle, I could have hired an overnight nanny, but as someone who was new in town, not knowing many people in general, and not knowing a single person among my colleagues, male or female, who had ever done the overnight nanny thing, that never really seemed like a feasible idea.
Nowadays, I know a number of families who swear by their full-time or live-in nannies. We have always gone with daycare centers for two main reasons: one is that centers take care of backup when the teacher is sick or has time off; the other reason is that I don't trust myself to choose a good person on my own, and daycare centers do a thorough check of all their staff. I personally am not a particularly good judge of character, and it takes me a while to form an accurate opinion; my initial impressions are often off and I have been known to get swayed by expertly delivered bullshit, but I know that about myself and I compensate for it. However, you don't generally have weeks or months to get to know a nanny before hiring her. Secondly, people underestimate how strongly interactions are influenced by social norms in a particular region. For instance, the culture in the country where I grew up is much more in-your-face, outwardly expressive than the culture in the part of the US where I live now. I don't miss the rudeness, I will tell you that, even though I appreciated the transparency in interpersonal interactions in my home country. In contrast, where I live now, everyone is so goddamn nice and polite and sweet, for all I know they could be plotting my demise this instant and I would not have a clue. It is extremely hard for me to read people in this particular part of the US; I have worked closely with some colleagues, who are native to this region, for 9 years and only now do I have some idea of what is really going on in their heads, behind that non-confrontational-at-all-cost facade. Bottom line is I don't trust myself to judge people around here (I have heard similar sentiments from several immigrant families) and I am really happy that I can send kids to a daycare center, where established employment criteria are employed. Now that we have been with this center for a while, we have a wonderful woman who is a teacher there babysitting our kids on occasion, and she did an overnight, but precisely because she is so awesome do we not want to bother her too much and we try to only use her sparingly, perhaps once a month. If I were on the tenure track now, having to travel quite heavily, I would have no problem leaving my kids with this woman. But hindsight is 20/20. Regardless, I definitely understand that people may not be comfortable leaving their kids for several days with someone they don't know well. It simply takes a while to get comfortable around someone, and some people take longer than others to get there.
One important question is whether, by not giving invited talks, I am somehow hurting the young women who come after me. I don't know, perhaps. All I know is that I cannot, just because I am a woman, be expected to be responsible for all the young women scientists in my field. If I have to go give invited talks at the expense of my work-life balance so I would be a good role mother for aspiring female scientists, then all stay-at-home-moms have to go back into the workforce so they would be good role models for their daughters who might want to work? Yeah, right.
An academic career is long. The tenure-track sprint comes with many sacrifices, which is fine, but many are such that they cannot be sustained over the marathon that is the entire career. Some people travel a lot and seem to enjoy it. More power to them, and to whoever holds the fort at home -- spouses, childcare professionals -- in their absence. To me, frequent travel is a nuisance, something I try to minimize for my family's well-being , the health and productivity of my group (they actually prefer me around so they can talk to me), and my own sanity. I am plenty busy just staying put.