Thu · Oct 27

Ask a Female Engineer: Employees with Kids and Relationships at Work

We’ve recruited a group of female engineers with years of industry experience to try an experiment with us called “Ask A Female Engineer.”

Read our first post to learn more about the series. We recognize that the opinions of a few people by no means represent the opinions or experiences of all women who code. We’d love to hear feedback and more perspectives on these questions, so we’re continuing the discussion on Hacker News.

I'm a software engineer at YC and will be moderating these posts. If you have questions you’d like to anonymously ask, or if you’re a female software developer who would like to participate, please email

How can startups make the workplace more parent-friendly? What are the opportunities and challenges of starting a family? Are there mother-specific initiatives my company should consider?

Edith : During pregnancy my first trimester was awful – I could barely eat and I was bone-tired. Things like brushing my teeth were pretty much guaranteed to make me vomit some days. Luckily I was working remotely and could just alternate between working from my bed and couch. I honestly don't know what I'll do if I become pregnant again now that I have an office job.

That experience made me realize that creating a workplace where it’s normal to work from home when needed is critical. Pregnant women may want to keep their pregnancies private during the first trimester. But if a woman is unwell during that time and starts working from home often when no one else at her company does, it may make her feel uncomfortable or draw attention to her and potentially give away the fact that she’s pregnant. If instead working from home is commonplace at her office and it’s considered normal to work from home for a few days in a row, then no one will ask questions.

Another important piece is to have a policy on parental leave that’s clearly spelled out in writing when you’re first making a job offer to a potential employee. Short term disability (STD) can help cover maternity leave, but the policies can be confusing and often employees don’t think about it until after they’re pregnant. So, if your company requires that an employee take action within a particular timeframe in order to qualify for STD, let them know up front so they don’t wind up losing out on the benefits. Also, real paid parental (not just maternity!) leave is critical if you want a welcoming and equitable environment, since the notion that only women care for children is outdated. A paternity leave policy can help remove the stigma women experience taking time away from work since both men and women at your office will take leave. If executives are mothers and fathers, it’s great to set the example that they take advantage of leave too. If your executive team members all choose to take the minimum amount of leave, employees may feel uncomfortable taking more leave, even if it’s offered by your company.

Also make sure your company’s policy accommodates maternity leave for adoption, too. I think an increasing emphasis on viewing parental leave as "bonding leave" as opposed to pure "physical recovery leave" is important to making sure adoptive parents have the time they need with their kids, too. There is absolutely a physical recovery requirement for biological mothers, yes, but it's important not to overlook the bonding needs for non-birth parents – whether those parents are adoptive parents, or surrogacy was involved, or if it's a gay or lesbian couple, or whatever.

Separately, I think encouraging people to view leave this way may help reduce the "mommy tracking" that sometimes happens. And by that I mean the “motherhood” career path where mothers need to leave work early or work from home when others are not, which can lead to fewer opportunities for career advancement. If the policies at your company are for parents in all sorts of situations, it means more men are likely to be taking time off and so women may be less likely to be penalized for doing so too.

To clarify for anyone who does not have kids, "bonding leave" doesn’t mean gazing lovingly into your baby's eyes for hours on end. Bonding, for me, was, "What the hell does this nonverbal thing want?" training. I think a metric for how much time you need for leave is when you the parent are able to tell a non-parent caregiver how to take care of your kid. For me, that was pretty much a full three months. It seems unfair to me to ask a parent, whether or not they had physically given birth, to return to work until they have a chance to figure out all of this stuff. This is just as important for non-child-carrying parents as it is for the person who did give birth.

It means a lot to me in my current job that my boss, the CEO, has two young kids and he holds his family time very dear; he leaves at 5 PM every day, too. When I had to bring my daughter in for an afternoon because my childcare fell through, he was completely nonchalant about it and pulled out a few of the toys he keeps around for his kids. I've had male reports tell me it’s meant a lot to them that I’ve led by example and worked from home when childcare fell through because they've been in the same situation and weren't sure if it was kosher for them to do the same thing. I found that as a manager, setting that example set a precedent not just for women with kids, but for the men too! The flexibility to make up time, work from home, or have unlimited sick days to deal with the realities of small humans getting sick, having childcare fall through, or whatever is so important. I want to work! I want to do my job! And as long as my company is willing to work with me, I'll get it done while doing my kid stuff, too.

Jean : Flexibility is key. Everyone's situation is different– e.g. pregnancy, having children or taking care of parents. Work from home, part-time options, and flexible hours benefit everyone. One very enlightened small company I worked for paid for a few days per year of ParentsInAPinch (now, which is vetted emergency backup child or elder care. I only used one day in my time there, but it was so helpful that day.

Kay : There is one benefit I had at my workplace 20 years ago, which I liked a lot. At that time working remotely was just emerging as a concept. Nowadays, as we all know, there are times when we really want or need to be at work, and if that's the day when your child gets sick, it's very frustrating.

My then-CEO, who was a single mother herself, had a sick room in our office. This room had sleeping bags and pillows, and a VHS player (these were the days before Netflix), and other things for kids. It was a big relief that I could take a sick child with me to work (of course only when the illness was not serious). I could see my child at any moment and know how they were feeling, give them medicine, and decide myself what to feed them without trying to figure it out on the phone with a sitter, feeling distracted and guilty.

That same CEO would go to my house and stay with my kids when we had emergency technical issues requiring all of the tech staff to stay late.

Mary : Having access to emergency paid time off and/or accessibility to emergency childcare is so important. I can’t forecast when my child will become sick to plan my PTO accordingly. I sometimes have to miss work because of a sick kid and when I am out of PTO, I have to work long hours trying to make up the time or take a no pay day If making up the time is not an option. In those moments, I sometimes feel an internal battle between being there for my kids when they need me and being a productive employee. When I feel like I can be both a mom and business professional I can focus on my work and I am happier.

Providing benefits for parents and catering to engineers with kids is a great way to have an edge recruiting experienced talent. Benefits might include an area for kids to play and do homework and discounts for childcare and children’s activities. You can make it clear your company is parent-friendly by having company events during lunch rather than after work or making after-hours events kid friendly.

Grete : I'm not a mom, but I think seeing what happens to senior technical women influences women's perception of their career path within the industry. I want to see people advance at a company I work for based on accomplishing goals rather than whether they stay late or attend all the company social outings, since parents don’t always have the time to stay late or socialize after work. It starts at the top. I want to see that senior leadership sets an example spending time with their families if they have them. Those sorts of actions communicate priorities to the broader organization. Employees with families should have the same opportunities for career growth as those who don't. That means clear career paths with clear milestones. I used to think clear processes were terribly bureaucratic, but now I appreciate the tangible benefits to having yardsticks for measuring career progress that a person can point to and make a case for advancement.

What policies would you like to see on employee dating?

Ada : Never assume that all your employees are straight, all your employees only date one person at a time, all of your employees define dating the same way you do, or that you’ll know if your employees are dating. I think a flat prohibition of romantic relationships in your company is going to be very hard to enforce; most likely, your employees are not going to disclose their relationships. It's probably safer to try and ensure that your employees are comfortable disclosing their relationships to their managers if they believe it will impact their work lives, at which point you can compassionately figure out a solution that protects the company, the team dynamic, and the employees who are dating. It’s important that employees should be comfortable disclosing non-monogamous or non-heterosexual relationships to their managers or the appropriate HR personnel without fear of reprisals or malicious gossip.

If you're going to have a policy on employee romantic relationships, my suggestion would be to focus on relationships where one partner is in a position of authority over the other and to create a system where the other employee can report to a different lead or manager. And yes, this policy should be clearly spelled out in a company handbook – it shouldn't be something your team is confused about or has to ask about.

In addition, I strongly recommend that relationships between full-time employees and interns are prohibited for the duration of the internships.

I should hope that it's obvious that any abuse, harassment, discrimination, or non-consensual sexual conduct towards a fellow employee, customer, intern, etc. – regardless of whether the two persons involved are in a romantic relationship or not – should not be tolerated under any circumstances.

Dorothy : I've never seen policy on employee dating that was effective. I’ve seen policies that made sense in theory – i.e. like don't date within your reporting chain – that lead to bad outcomes in practice – people hiding their relationship. In a perfect world it'd be great to just have people "do the right thing" but sadly that just doesn't provide enough guidance to people who haven't been around the block enough to "know better".

If you have questions you’d like to anonymously ask, or if you’re a female software developer who would like to participate, please email