Pregnancy Doesn't Make Women Dumb — Just Their Bosses


Maybe you were more forgetful when you were pregnant, maybe you weren’t. Maybe you spent the first trimester huddled over a wastebasket barfing, or maybe your gestation made Pinterest look sloppy. Doesn’t matter, because it’s the perception that you’re a quivering mess that leads to discrimination, not reality.

But first: the research. Does pregnancy affect your brain or doesn’t it? The answer is surprising: YES OF COURSE BUT NO NOT REALLY and it all depends yadda yadda. That is the conclusion to be drawn from a broad overview of the existing research in an excerpt at Science of Us. In a post debunking the myth of a “pregnancy brain,” AKA, “pregnesia,” “baby brain,” “preg-head,” and so on, we learn that studies show that pretty much everyone — including pregnant women — thinks that pregnancy brain equals cognitive decline. Christian Jarrett writes from his book Great Myths of the Brain:

Given these views, perhaps it’s no wonder that researchers have uncovered disconcerting evidence about the prejudice shown toward pregnant women, especially in work contexts. Although such prejudice is driven by multiple factors, widespread belief in baby-brain likely plays an important part. Consider a study published in 1990, in which Sarah Corse at the University of Pennsylvania invited male and female MBA students to interact with a female manager they’d never met before, and then rate her afterward. In fact, the “manager” was a research assistant acting the part, and the key finding was that students given the additional information that the woman was pregnant reported finding their interaction with her less satisfying than students not fed this lie.
The myth of the baby-brain hasn’t come out of thin air. Countless surveys of pregnant women, using questionnaires and diary reports, have found that many of them — usually about two-thirds — — feel that being pregnant has affected their mental faculties, especially their memories. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it has. Neither does it prove that the cause is some biological consequence of the state of pregnancy as opposed to lifestyle factors, like fatigue and stress.

But isn’t all this a little counterintuitive? What good would it do pregnant women to suddenly become less competent? As Jarrett notes: Shouldn’t women’s brains get BETTER at stuff to take care of their kids, just as animal’s brains do? The answer is yes, actually, and they do:

When I asked Kinsley why the human literature was full of findings about cognitive impairments while the animal research points to improvements, he said the disparity may have to do with the kinds of tasks and behaviors that were being studied in humans. “Much of the data from human mothers has been derived from asking females to demonstrate cognitive enhancements to skills, behaviors, occupations that are largely irrelevant to the care and protection of young,” he said.

Cool studies, guys. Has anyone looked into how dumb it makes a dude to have a boner 12 times a day for 85% of his life and the effect on his workplace productivity? Just wondering.

When it comes to issues where women get it stuck to them both ways, pregnancy is on the short list, just under asking for a raise or demonstrating leadership. It is yet another tightrope wherein women have to somehow simultaneously convince the world they are worthy and competent by one set of standards while still signaling compliance with another set of standards of behavior/appearance so as not to appear too threatening but still be taken seriously. All while the pressure on your bladder is a real bitch.

Proof of this can be found in the heartening work of employment law. In a recent conversation with one such attorney, Tom Spiggle, author of the new book You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired! Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace, I learned that, not surprisingly, this perception of incompetence due to baby brain is a big driver in discrimination on the job.

“It’s one of two things,” said Spiggle by phone. “It’s older employers who think a woman should be at home with the kids, or it’s this idea that baby brain means you’ll be less competent or distracted because you have kids.”

Lower-income women are of course hit much harder by this bias. Spiggle says many of the most blatant discrimination situations he’s aware of often concern women in low-income positions such as wait staff at bars or restaurants — but that due to lack of resources, they are much less likely to seek legal counsel or file suit.

As such, his book targets the type of women in the cases he’s handled directly, those of professional women who have an impending sense that their newly announced pregnancy is not going to bode well for their careers.

“They come to me, they say, ‘Things were fine, and all the sudden I’ve gotten pregnant and now it’s different and I don’t know why,” Spiggle says. “‘And I’m afraid I’ve got a target on my back.'”

Often, the women are not wrong, perhaps due to some keen new pregnancy-enhanced ability to detect bullshit. But the subtle and not-so-subtle differences these women all pick up on have a certain commonality: Changes in tone from higher ups, resentment and hostility, being kept out of the loop on important information, suddenly going from positive performance reviews to negative performance reviews, or outright being fired in a way that isn’t consistent with how other employees are being treated.

“That employer can say we’ve got a policy to be here at 9, you’ve been late this many days, and we’re going to fire you,” Spiggle explains. “But it turns out they are not applying the same policy to the guy who likes to be on the golf course.”

Of course, an employer can fire a pregnant woman who is not performing her job. The key is consistency from the employer, who is protected so long as they can prove they have fired or would also fire, say, a childless male employee on the same grounds. (Such a consistency actually saved Bloomberg in a long-running class-action discrimination case involving pregnant employees and mothers who alleged penalties for taking time off.)

But the childless male employee is key to all this, because he’s the standard for what an ideal employee is anyway. Spiggle mentions the site, which looks at improving workplace conditions by “jumpstarting the stalled gender revolution.” One article explores the stigma of workplace flexibility, specifically the notion that anyone who takes advantage of flexibility is typically penalized, and that person is usually a mother or female caregiver (thought increasingly, fathers and male caregivers).

“The employer’s preference is for the ideal employee and that is the employee available 24/7,” Spiggle notes. “A woman who has a had a child and is even performing at a high level is not going to be available 24/7.”

In one of Spiggle’s cases, a woman who was second in line for an executive position at a small company already had one child. She was close with the executive above her, who asked her point-blank if she planned on having more children. She said she and her husband were, in fact, currently trying, and the executive told her she simply could not do the job with two children, there was too much travel; it was too hard. She was abruptly changed to a different position and had her direct reports taken away, and was publicly taken off the job track.

Such stories are perfect encapsulations of why all the studies in the world about baby brain don’t amount to a hill of beans, and often neither does your performance — if your company or manager is biased against women who breed, they will look for and invent if need be reasons to block their paths.

That’s why Spiggle advises women to go into discussions of pregnancy in a preventive mode, before they are fired — try to keep an open dialog about your schedule or needs going forward, stay aware of how other employees are treated, and keep records.

And finally, said Spiggle, “Never take the employers’ version of what they are doing at face value.”

Luckily, literally anyone can do that, I presume — even a woman with a reduced brain capacity gestating a child.

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