The glass ceiling: A biological phenomenon

Med Hypotheses. 2017 Sep:106:41-43. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2017.07.002. Epub 2017 Jul 6.


Many brilliant and ambitious young women lose their drive for top careers after childbirth. New maternal impulses are at odds with their original ambitions and for many mothers stress and frustration will be the result as they have to combine child care with workweeks of 60-80h to reach or remain at the top. Pregnancy hormones modify the female's brain as has been demonstrated already for decades in animals. This brain plasticity due to adult neurogenesis in the so called maternal circuitry of the limbic system is long-lasting and perhaps lifelong. In humans hormonal and neuro-imaging studies show ample evidence for fundamental and long lasting pregnancy induced brain changes, not only in the limbic system, but also in the cortical networks like theory of mind and mirror neuron system. Recent research shows pronounced and long lasting brain changes in several of these areas. It can be concluded that there exists a maternal brain that drives mother's behaviour and priorities. Research in men shows that the more fathers are involved in raising their children, the more caring behaviour they develop. Structural anatomical changes are found in neural regions involved in parental motivation. These studies show that brain plasticity in fathers is experience dependent. In Nordic countries, a policy of paid paternal leave followed by a flexible shared parental leave, stimulates fatherly behaviour. This might reduce men's eagerness for top careers, thus creating better opportunities for women. Demolition of women's glass ceiling starts with the father.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aspirations, Psychological*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Empathy / physiology
  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • Humans
  • Lactation / physiology
  • Lactation / psychology
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Models, Animal
  • Models, Neurological
  • Models, Psychological
  • Motivation / physiology
  • Parturition / physiology
  • Parturition / psychology
  • Paternal Behavior / physiology
  • Paternal Behavior / psychology
  • Physicians, Women / psychology
  • Pregnancy
  • Women, Working / psychology*