Pregnancy and competence

I just got back from ten days in China – factory tours in Shenzhen! photos and video forthcoming! – and am getting caught up on news.

Anti-Foreigner VC Also Supports Hiring Discrimination

One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon. Believe it or not, under current US law, you’re not even allowed to discriminate on the basis of intelligence. Whereas when you’re starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.

It is amazing to me that this is news.

It’s amazing because almost every woman I know in the tech industry has known about that Paul Graham quote for years. It’s occasionally still brought up at diversity dinners – when people ask why there aren’t more female founders, or more women VCs. It’s not causal, obviously, but it is indicative of an undertone of condoned discrimination. Occasionally a male colleague hears about it for the first time and doesn’t believe it until he’s read it for himself.

I’m six months pregnant at the moment. Maybe that means I’m less capable than I was six months ago. Maybe it means that in another three months my productivity will suffer some sort of precipitous decline, from which it won’t recover for an indeterminate period of time. No one seems to wonder whether my husband’s work ethic will suffer the same fate.

I don’t talk about gender issues very much on this blog because I prefer to focus on things I do, rather than things that happen to be. But during in my time in male-dominated fields, I’ve gotten the sense that people think differently about professional women during and after their transition to motherhood. That perception has long made me rather ambivalent about having a baby in the first place – what would I be doing to my career, exactly?

It’s not really PC to talk about that kind of ambivalence; being concerned about that sort of thing makes a woman sound like a callous careerist with misplaced priorities. But as we’ve entered our late 20s and early 30s, most of my ambitious female friends agonize about “when to do it” and wonder about the economics of freezing eggs. When I was in finance, we joked about it in terms of amortization. Conventional wisdom says that there’s never a good time for anyone – but when one of the gurus of your industry is publicly record talking about how he wouldn’t do a startup with a new mommy, and the joys of being able to discriminate, there’s a sense that your marketability somehow decreases once you’ve reproduced.

This is one of the reasons why I had such a difficult time with “Lean In.” It’s a great message, but it falls short against the reality of cultural conditioning in many industries. Many women I’ve spoken with feel that after their kids, they’ve had to work even harder just to be taken as seriously as they were before. I’m trying to come up with parallels that male colleagues experience, but falling short. Maybe the best example would be a male employee having major surgery. Sure, there will be a period of adjustment for the company and the individual, but the most likely outcome is known and can be planned for. The person may be physically impaired during recovery, but it’s assumed that his professional capability will be back to normal in no time.

So maybe it’s good that this PG story is news. Maybe it shows that attitudes are changing. But for the moment, I’m still wondering: Can motherhood ever be a biological rite of passage without being a professional one?