Monday, June 30, 2008

When is the best time to have a baby?

One of the questions that's almost always asked at Work/Life Balance panels is "when is the best time to have a baby?" This is, of course, one of those questions that's impossible to answer for someone else. And usually, the panelists rightly don't touch the answer. But perhaps the askers still want to know - is it better to have kids during or after grad school?

I was at a wedding this weekend and saw a family friend who's a sociologist. We were talking about some of these issues and she mentioned that this question has actually been studied (I must admit that I find it strange to think about people studying us). So here's a link to the study: The Best Time to Have a Baby: Institutional Resources and Family Strategies Among Early Career Sociologists. It is, as the title suggests, not really studying us if us means women in computer science, but it still seems relevant. The study was done by the American Sociological Association and the short version of the summary is:
Those women who give birth or adopt during graduate school have significantly lower odds of obtaining what we have defined as early career success right out of graduate school, even if they obtain institutional resources and use them in career strategies. Their chances improve several years later if they change jobs, when other positive factors are present. Those women who have children after graduate school decrease their odds of obtaining a tenure-track position at a research or doctoral university if they did not obtain this kind of position right after the PhD. Women who continue to delay childbirth do better at obtaining success early in their careers, and, as we have seen, significantly more of them delay childbirth than do their male colleagues.

My short version answer to this question stays the same as before I read the summary (I admit - that's all I've read so far): Have kids when you're ready. That was the advice of someone at the work/life balance panel, and it seemed like good advice to me.


Anonymous said...

can you post your picture on the blog?

Josh said...


My biggest peeve about things like WiT is that men aren't invited! Well, actually I understand that -- it's important to foster a sense of camaraderie amongst women in the field (see, in particular, reason #2 on the list here), and there's limited funding.

So I guess what bothers me is that panels like this don't happen at other conferences like, say, FOCS/STOC/SODA/etc.

I'm a man, and (shocker) I'm interested in having a balanced life. I want to have kids someday (I'm not equating these two, I'm just saying, for me, part of a balanced life will hopefully involve children). My future wife may well be an academic, and even if statistics say having kids won't affect my career much, I care about how it will affect her career.

Not to mention the fact that I think it's incredibly important to bring women into the field, and part of doing that is figuring out why they're not here in the first place (as opposed to other fields, like biology). I hope that this doesn't only get talked about at women-only gatherings, but in my limited experience so far, that's what happens.

Just some food for thought.


PS - I'm glad to see there's finally a female TCS blogger!

sorelle said...

Josh -

That seems like a really good idea to me! It'd be great if discussions like this happened at co-ed conferences too... though I worry that there would be some amount of backlash of dedicating time to "unimportant" issues - i.e. not research. I imagine that there are other less gendered issues that it would be good to discuss as a community as well.

Also, I worry that discussing "women's issues" at general conferences would invite the questioning by some of the less enlightened about why women need "special help" through exclusive conferences, etc. Or questioning about why we even care if there are so few women in computer science. I must admit, the though of having that conversation makes me tired...

bpb said...

Hi Josh,

I was an attendee at the workshop and the best part about the it was that we never discussed the reason why women are not in the field in the first place. (So, to begin with, this issue was never explicitly discussed. Secondly, I don't think it's true that such issues are discussed only in women-only workshops.)

I am glad you are interested in issues such as work-life balance, ideal time for giving birth to children etc. Why men don't discuss it is a question that you should pose to yourself and other men in the field. (And not to the women (and few men) who decided to organize this workshop).

Personally, I agree, such workshops will benefit both genders and it would be good if both men (who are larger in number) and women take the initiative to organize such workshops for both genders.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Put me down on the list of people who think work/life (and in particular kid/job) issues are a suitable topic for side panels at conferences like FOCS/STOC/SODA. Not that there's anything wrong with also having WiT or related workshops specifically for women to talk about these issues -- not at all! But many men could also benefit.

Regarding the best time for having children, as my wife told me, "There is no good time." In that it's always a challenge to balance work and family -- there will always be competing demands on your time -- but at some point, if you want it, you have to do it and make it work. This is about the same as "Have kids when you're ready" advice, with the addition that, "I'm so busy now" is not in itself a reason not to be ready. You'll always be busy now.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Also, Sorelle, welcome to blogging! Enjoying it all so far!

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm a horrible close-minded person, but I don't actually care about women in computing. I care about breaking down barriers that make bright people with the potential for great productivity fell unwelcome. I care about recruiting people with the potential for greatness that wouldn't come to computing or theory on their own.

Personally I think that "Girl Power!" is about as appropriate slogan as "White Power!", which is to say that I don't think it's appropriate. I think that we need to recognize that we've failed and let the landscape become euro-centric, and male-centric, but we need to fix it without creating other inwardly facing groups.

But maybe if you're not a man or white, or christian or whatever it's hard to get the people that are to pay attention. But please don't give up.

The pursuit of knowledge in academia is a collaboration, and we're all building on the work of those who came before us and our peers all the time. And some insights and advances are not inevitable, but the result of having the right person in the right place. Every time someone leaves the field because they were made to feel unwelcome, and every person we fail to try to recruit could be centuries or decades of delay to the acquisition of knowledge. You may never be able to solve the problems that keep you at night, but I think most people want to see them solved in our lifetime so we need to make sure our institutions of learning are not just welcome to all but encourage all to engage them.

Josh said...

Anonymous: I don't think that's horrible or close-minded at all. In fact, I quite agree with your statements that it's really about advancing the state of knowledge, and not about "Girl Power."

But here are several reasons I think it is valuable to focus on women. In no particular order:

1) Pragmatic. Getting women into the field is something that *might* be solvable from within our own community, as opposed to something that needs to be solved on a society-wide level. For example, while the education gap across socioeconomic classes continues to increase, the education gap between men and women has dramatically decreased. Indeed, we see women going into other scientific fields in much greater numbers. So whatever the reason for the paucity of women in TCS, it has to do with TCS, and not with the fact that women don't get to go to college, say.

2) Scale. Women represent slightly more than half the world population. Close this gap, and every other gap you close gets you twice as much as it otherwise would have. Moreover, if you're going with a "remove the largest bottleneck first" attitude, getting women into a field is an obvious goal.

3) Viewpoint. This one I'm a little shaky on, but it goes something like: (most) women think differently than (most) men. I don't know how much this extends to research (particularly in TCS), but how do we know what insights we're missing that might be provided by another viewpoint, if the viewpoint is barely represented?

elad said...

Josh: good comment.

However, are you sure that there is an education gap (between women and men) ? I was under the impression that nowadays, if there is a gap, then it is in the reverse direction to the one you implied: men go to college less, and succeed less when they do. But I didn't check the statistics carefully, so I'm not sure.

The scientific gap still exists of course: more than 50% of the students in math, physics, engineering and such are male, and the percentage increases when you look at grad school, and increases further when you look at professors.

Sorelle: thanks for writing. It's great to read a balanced and thoughtful discussion of these topics.

Amala said...

Good one. Read more on delayed childbirth: