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
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.