When it comes to babies, people don't always think clearly. I don't mean that they erupt into baby talk and make funny faces, though that can happen, too. It's more that babies elicit a strong set of cultural assumptions and values that can influence our thinking, for better and for worse.
Take an example from last week, when Peretz Partensky, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, wrote about the experiences of his co-founder, Na'ama Moran, fundraising in Silicon Valley while pregnant. The article sparked a heated discussion at Hacker News. Some comments were supportive, but many were skeptical that the demands of a start-up are compatible with those of a baby:
"I have no problem with that person being a male or female. But I can't imagine any person (mom or dad) being able to put 15 hours a day to a company with the baby after the baby is born. That's the first thing the article should deal with."
"If your 'startup' is still a priority (but not above your child) you aren't going to be in the office from sun up to sun down. Period."
Motivating many of the comments were strong beliefs about how children ought to be raised, and the role that mothers ought to play in doing so:
"Would I invest in a startup with the founder about to have a baby? No. Either they will be dedicating a big part of their life in the near future to raising that baby correctly, or they will be ignoring that baby and leaving someone else to raise it. I find the second outcome even worse than the first, but I'm not going to invest in either."
"I think women make better caretakers. A father can stay home and be the caretaker, but I think a mother will have a more positive nurturing influence on the child's life if she is there as much as she can be."
A New York Timesarticle about a pregnant CEO, published in February, prompted similar responses:
"Good article, and confirms *everything* we know about pregnancy and mothers: when the child comes, it is priority number one. If those investors had put money into this pregnant woman's startup, they would have lost millions and millions of dollars. The stereotype is absolutely correct; political correctness be damned."
Now let's swap the baby.
Suppose that instead of discussing a CEO's pregnancy and its potential impact on a start-up, these discussions had been about a different large (but baby-free) commitment: anotherstart-up. In fact, the following question was posed on Hacker News, the very same discussion forum that considered Partensky's article: "Should an entrepreneur build multiple startups simultaneously?"
The responses were thoughtful. They acknowledged the challenges involved, and some responded in the negative, but many also discussed strategies to handle the balancing act while increasing the odds of success. Stripped of assumptions about pregnancy, mothers and babies, the discussion was both more civilized and more constructive.
It's examples like these that lead me to propose the "swap-the-baby" test. When faced with a question about pregnancy, mothers or babies, swap the baby for an appropriate alternative. In this case, the concern is about dedication to a start-up, so swap the baby for another time-intensive commitment: a second start-up.
Is a second start-up just like a baby? Of course not. There are physical demands associated with pregnancy, birth and lactation that don't have clear analogues, and having a child is a transformative experience in a way that having a second start-up is typically not. Moreover, there may be personal and social values that should influence the way someone handles the demands of a start-up and a baby, versus those of two distinct start-ups.
The swap-the-baby test isn't intended to replace one question with another, but rather to help expose the assumptions and values creeping into assessments of the question you really want to answer. Some of those assumptions and values may belong there, but they shouldn't go unexamined.
Consider other examples. Do babies belong in movie theaters, in classrooms or at conferences? Here, a primary concern is disruption to others. Alternative sources of disruption include a bright or noisy smartphone, typing on a laptop, a bad cough, or a strong perfume. Sometimes we regulate these, but more often we let people use their judgment. Similarly, parents know their own babies and the conditions under which they're likely to be disruptive. Swap the baby for a smartphone with a somewhat unreliable "silent" mode and see if your perspective shifts.
Swapping the baby doesn't always result in a more accommodating attitude towards parents and babies. If an employee asks to leave work early, a boss might be more accommodating if the request is made to pick up a baby than to make it to an exercise class or to choir practice. Yet, swapping the baby still helps us recognize the values that inform our decisions. Maybe caregiving is a social good that deserves a special status, distinct from other discretionary uses for time. Or maybe we should be more accommodating of alternative, non-parental pursuits. This is a conversation worth having.
The swap-the-baby test isn't a panacea for pregnancy or parent-related prejudice. But the human mind is a messy thing, and our judgments can be influenced by all sorts of implicit assumptions and biases. The swap-the-baby test is one more tool to help us recognize when those influences occur, and to change our behavior accordingly.
Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo