Saturday, August 18, 2007

Why don't smart people have children?

When I first moved out to LA to join Mark, I went bike riding with a senior manager at our company. He was not in my management chain and he is a personal friend so he could ask about my reproductive plans. He pointed out other couples we knew, all PhDs and MDs, none of whom had children. He was perplexed and unhappy. He wanted to know, "Why don't smart people have children?"

I didn't have a good answer for him. I still don't. But I have a few (in)coherent ideas. As usual, it starts with a digression and a narrative.

I spent the past week reviewing the plans for a satellite program and trying to come up with a coherent report about it. Independent reviewers are supposed to help reduce the risk of these large programs by spotting and heading off trouble early.

In one briefing, a key engineer/physicist for one of the sensors on the satellite explained what she (and her team) had already done and what she still needed to do. She was clearly nervous. I could see that she had deep subject matter understanding. But, I could also tell that she had an awful lot left to do before launch and a small team to do it.

That's not that unusual. What was unusual, was that I kept staring at her stomach. I couldn't tell, but I kept wondering, "Is she pregnant and beginning to show?" Thoughts of an important (to my career) briefing I gave about another troubled satellite program when I was 4 months pregnant with Iris raced through my mind.

I looked at her tummy. I looked at the timeline. I looked at her scheduled software delivery milestones and mentally added notations for birth, maternity leave, teething, first steps and potty training. I added margin for all the unscheduled interruptions of parenting. There wasn't enough time. Even if she wasn't pregnant there was scarcely enough time.

Maybe she wasn't pregnant. Maybe that is her nominal body shape. I couldn't bring myself to ask her point blank. I doubted it was legal for me to inquire. Yet, I had a responsibility to report back about the availability and quality of key staff and whether the staffing ratio was adequate for the schedule.

She wasn't forthcoming and she has every right to be afraid if she is pregnant. Yet, it would be nice for others to know as early as possible in order to make contingency plans. Why do we feel like we have to hide our pregnancies as long as possible? The first trimester is often the worst. Yet we suffer in isolation, hiding how terrible we feel, pretending that nothing is happening. It is troubling that we even need laws to protect pregnant women in the workplace against discrimination. (The protections end after pregnancy which is why there is so much workplace discrimination against mothers.)

What to do?

By the time a woman has an advanced degree in Physics, she is usually in her late twenties or even early thirties. Add a few years to become established in a position and the biological clock is ticking awfully loud. You can't plan reproduction around satellite deliveries and launches because they are delayed all the time. (I work with one satellite that was delayed three years.)

The circle of life must go on. Bearing and raising children is important work. There is no earthly reason we should take women with exceptional drive, talent and skill out of the gene pool.

What to do? My report is due on Monday. I should be working on it now instead of blogging.

Read more thoughts about Career and Birthrates

Update:
Well, my preliminary report is in. I consulted a more senior woman who had led another study in which I was a team member. She told me that a pregnancy for a contractor is not our business. A man could quit at any time; the manager would have much less notice than a pregnancy.

She suggested that, in any program with a tight schedule, it would be appropriate to put a sentence asking for a contingency plan in the absence of any key personnel.

So when in doubt, ask people with more experience.

4 comments:

  1. I agree that smart women shouldn't be taken out of the gene pool - there are some pretty good obvious reasons for that.

    I think perhaps a contributing reason as to why many of us don't have kids is because we simply think about it more than less smart women do.

    I was listening to the radio over the weekend, and they mentioned in passing that smarter people have less accidents in the home. Thinking about this, I think it's because we tend to think more about what we're doing and the possible consequences. Same with having kids - we're not just listening to our instincts telling us the whole thing would be lovely (which I'm sure it is, and which I'm not discounting), we're also thinking about what sorts of effects having a child is going to have on our relationship, life in general, career; what it means for the evironment, what it means to our extended family, living situation, etc etc etc. And then there's wondering what I'd do if the child turned out to be disabled in some way (I have a disabled nephew), and how much more of an impact that would have.

    Or that could just be me, being overly analytical as usual and thinking everyone else is as well.

    But the more I think about it, the more ambivalent I am. If you're the sort of person who coasts through life not really thinking, the decision has to be a whole lot easier - or if you're a thinking person who really wants a family, you probably get over the ambivalence more easily than me!

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Bearing and raising children is important work". Most certainly so. But smart women face many more pressures than their less intelligent or less highly trained cousins. And the training given to smart women does not really encourage reproduction. There is little support, little empathy, and it makes the work for which the smart women have trained for much of their lives all that much more difficult.

    There seem to be a lot of reasons, well founded ones at that, but can society change and address the problems?

    ReplyDelete
  3. As always, a thoughtful and relevant post...

    I work as an engineer and my coworkers are 90% men. Most of them do not have children, so this puts me in the minority both as a woman and as a parent. They have all made this decision for different and personal reasons, but it is a disturbing trend. What I really find lacking is empathy for the work involved in raising a child.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, my preliminary report is in. I consulted a more senior woman who had led another study in which I was a team member. She told me that a pregnancy for a contractor is not our business. A man could quit at any time; the manager would have much less notice than a pregnancy.

    She suggested that, in any program with a tight schedule, it would be appropriate to put a sentence asking for a contingency plan in the absence of any key personnel.

    So when in doubt, ask people who are smarter than me.

    ReplyDelete