Employers: It’s time to dismiss the ‘mommy brain’ myth

Women are taking themselves out of the workplace because the 'mommy brain' stereotype isn't being debunked by employers, says Dr Caroline Leaf:

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Aug 16, 2023

There are some work-related statistics that are just so shocking, they need to be given more attention.

Take, for instance, the still under-reported fact that when it comes to people exiting the workforce, it’s women who are literally disappearing in droves.

Sure, it’s been happening for some time. Data suggests the even prior to the pandemic, women were dropping out of the workforce at twice the rate of men.

But since then this rate has accelerated, to the point where female participation in the paid labor force is now at its lowest point in more than 30 years. Having previously led the world in terms of women’s workforce participation, the US is now ranked 6th out of the world’s largest seven economies.

CHRO’s will all instinctively know why.

It’s women who tend to take on the brunt of caring responsibilities – whether it’s for their own children, or their aging parents. Around a third of all mothers in the US workforce have either scaled back or left their jobs entirely since March 2020, contributing to the much-written about labor shortages.

All-told there are now one million fewer women in employment with children under the age of 18 than there were just two years ago (23 million).

But while lack of care options are (rightly) often blamed, there is one stigma that Dr Caroline Leaf (PhD) says needs confronting better: the stigma of the ‘mommy brain’.

Mommy brain – and it’s destructive influence

According to Leaf – a neuroscientist and mental health expert – moms own tendency to self-diagnosis it, plus old-fashioned, oft-held employer discrimination about new moms’ mental capacities, means unnecessary numbers of women are quitting the workforce when they shouldn’t be.

In fact, she’s so adamant that this needn’t be the case, that she’s on a quest to debunk negative connotations surrounding postpartum – connotation that she says make some employers still question women’s abilities in the workplace.

“What seems to be happening is that women – but also employers – get pre-programmed by society about this – such that it’s bored into their brains,” says Leaf, who spoke exclusively to TLNT.

She adds: “It’s almost like this expectation to be less efficient/useful at work has been hard-wired into women. Women assume that when they become pregnant, and after they’ve given birth, they’re not at the same mental level as before. But many employers still don’t challenge this, and so it carries on.”

Mommy brain is a misnomer

According to Leaf (who herself has four children, and who did a complex PhD through the birth of her second child), women are simply tired when they have new children, but they conflate this with inability to work at the same level as before, or having the same level of intelligence/quick thinking.

“The brain works to conserve energy,” she says. “New mothers have a massive demand on their brains – it instantly shifts to being caring, and to focus on their child.”

She adds: “But actually, women’s brains become ‘more’ efficient – their ability to tune into what their baby needs is phenomenal.” She says: “Moms have a ability to learn lots of new things more quickly. They’re more resourceful and proficient, and their sense of empathy is also strengthened – all traits employers should actually be crying out for.”

Employers must do more

Because women often fall into the stereotype of declaring they have a ‘mommy brain’, Leaf says the onus is on employers to do more to promote the value of working mothers, and debunk this myth.

“Employers need to change their own mindsets around this topic,” she says. “If they actually knew how more time-efficient moms are, and how resourceful they become, they would be hiring more of them like a shot. But the old image of the foggy-brained mom still persists.”

She says: “The brain’s neuroplasticity is such that it loves to develop, and change, and all the things that come with being a mom actually unleash more creativity. Women removing themselves from the workplace – or feeling pressured to do so by their employers – is not the place we want to be in.”

She adds: “When women feel ready to go back to work, employers need to be doing their utmost to support them. The best thing they could do is help with childcare, to help free moms up to being able to concentrate on working without feeling like they’re being judged for their performance.”

Employers: normalize working moms

Normalizing working mothers, rather than putting them on a pedestal is also something Leaf says needs to happen.

“We here the phrase ‘supermom’ – as if it’s some sort of achievement that a woman can have a family and a career.” She adds: “But really it’s quite patronizing.”

But how long is the ‘mommy brain’ stigma likely to take to fade away?

“It’s built up and been maintained through years of casual sexism,” she says, sounding despondent. “But – and I’m genuinely positive about this – I do think there is the chance things could now change fast.”

She adds: “I’m positive because it feels like we’re in a very different climate, where female issues are talked about more; and I’m confident too that awareness will turn into change. We’re at a flux moment; at a point of change. I think we could be moving in the right direction. But women do also have to tell themselves that mommy brain isn’t a real ‘thing’.”

She adds: “Let’s also hope employers place their part too.”

Mommy brain – or ‘momnesia’– The facts:

Leaf says:

  • “Unfortunately, “mommy brain” has had a bit of a negative connotation, and so the expectancy of “my mind and brain will get worse” is actually wired into the brain of moms because of this societal meme, which is the actual problem, not the mommy brain per se.”

  • “This mindset is often how a mom or partner or friend view any changes in behavior in the mom and may innocently tease them, but this just reinforces the negative network and may induce fear in the new mom, which is way more negatively impactful on brain function that the amazing changes that are actually happening.”

  • “When pregnant, neuroplasticity continues, but our minds have a different objective: to become more efficient, enabling moms to tune in more effectively to their infants as well as doing more. So, the type of rewiring that the mind does in the brain during and after pregnancy, is one of pruning in the areas in the brain that relate to empathy and that enable moms to learn lots of new things more quickly to make them more resourceful and proficient – great skills with babies!”