Mothers should be programmers

Posted on February 7, 2010


Disclaimer: I am not a mother (yet! :D)

I’ve been sitting on the idea of this blog post for a while, and this article made me finally type it out. The Gamesbrief’s post is about how a video game company CEO considered discriminating against hiring women because of how costly maternity leave is to the company.

But a game development company should be one of the best places for a mother-to-be to work; and not as the “marketers, finance teams, [and] lawyers” this guy is thinking of hiring. Mothers should be programmers, because programmers can work at home more effectively than any other kind of worker.

The reason maternity leave is so long, and results in so many women never coming back, is because of breastfeeding and bonding. The physical trauma of childbirth doesn’t last that long, and some women won’t want to breastfeed, but pretty much all women will be bonding with their infants. The reason is just as much physiological as psychological; in all mammals, hormones instruct the female to keep close watch over her newborn, and humans are hardly an exception. In my department, 6 children were born this year (5 to graduate students, 1 to a prof) and my adviser is pregnant. The one constant is that all the fathers complain how difficult it is to tear their wives away from their infants for even an hour, and almost all women report a drastic shift in priorities. Gamesbrief expresses dismay over the 2/3 of women who claim they’ll return to their jobs, but don’t- but he doesn’t seem to realize that those 2/3 of women might be as shocked as he is to find that their priorities have changed.

So how do you keep your women? Simple. You don’t require that they leave their kid(s) to work for you. Programmers are the ultimate maverick workers. They wear t-shirts and tennis shoes to work. They work from home. They work 6pm-2am. Why can’t we have programmers that work on an OLPC reformatted with Ubuntu on a playground? Why can’t we have programmers that work from 2am-4am after their infant wakes them up in the middle of the night demanding to be fed?

Of course a women straight out of the hospital isn’t going to give you 8 hours a day. But maybe she can give you one hour a day. That way, she’s kept appraised of changes in her projects so she’ll be up to speed. And maybe after a few weeks, she feels like doing 2,4,6 hours a day. Maybe she’ll hire a babysitter or help a few days a week, and come into the office to attend meetings and the like, and spend some days at home.

The reason maternity leave is so long is because it’s necessary for both mother and baby to be together after birth. And the fact that maternity leave is so long results in a really high attrition rate; the longer you’re out of work, the harder it is to go back. But if a woman programs for a living, a gradual return is possible, and the attrition could be greatly reduced.

Posted in: Ramblings