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How maternity leave can hurt a woman’s career: ‘So much can change’

Global News with Tammy Schirle 26 September 2019

 

When Janet found out she was pregnant, she was petrified to tell her boss.

The communications professional, who asked Global News to change her name to protect her identity, was 27 when she became pregnant. She thought taking maternity leave would diminish her chances of being promoted.

There were also no other mothers with young children at the Toronto agency where she worked, and she worried that co-workers would view her differently.

“I’ve read many stories and articles about the struggles of being a working mom and offices not being adaptive [and] I was fearful of what could happen,” Janet, now 31, said.

Janet’s boss, however, turned out to be very supportive and accommodating. She was even allowed to work from home a few days a week during her pregnancy.

Returning to work after her mat leave, though, was more challenging. She was constantly exhausted and felt like she had no work-life balance.

She also learned she may have missed out on professional opportunities while on mat leave.

“During my maternity leave, a co-worker quit, and I would have been up for that role had I been in the office but I wasn’t,” she said.

“[I] thought going back would be easy, but really taking a year [off] from the communication world is crazy; so much can change.”

The realities of maternity leave

Janet’s position is not unique.

According to Tammy Schirle, a professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., there is evidence that motherhood affects women’s paycheques.

“There’s been a large number of studies showing that having a child has long-term negative implications for women’s earnings,” Schirle told Global News. “Men don’t experience the same negative consequences for becoming fathers.”

A recent report even found that fewer than half of fathers take all the paternity leave on offer, and most men still see changing diapers as a woman’s job.

Schirle also says time taken away from work may mean “giving up opportunities for training and promotion.” This, in turn, can impact a woman’s earnings.

“Moreover, in some workplaces, a maternity or parental leave might be frowned upon,” she said. “That is a reality for many parents that might affect their chances for promotion.”

Research backs this up.

A recent study out of Wilfrid Laurier found that extended parental leave can hurt women’s careers. In Canada, extended leave allows parents to take off 18 months from work instead of 12 months.

The study found women who take mat leave for longer than 12 months are often seen by managers as less ambitious or dedicated to their job. (It’s also important to note that extended parental leave can pose financial problems for parents, too.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation highlights steep costs of daycare in cities like Toronto and Vancouver can also delay a woman’s return to work after giving birth.

The “motherhood penalty” is one of many factors related to the gender pay gap, the foundation says, and it’s important to note that women of colour, Indigenous women, new Canadians and women with a disability may be affected even more.

Schirle also points out that women view motherhood and their careers differently. Not every woman wants to return to the workforce after giving birth, whereas some professionals want to return as soon as possible.

“While it used to be the case that women generally worked to supplement the family income, women now build their own careers and are often the higher earner in the family,” Schirle explained.

“I tend to think about maternity leave in the context of women building careers, but it’s important to consider women with less attachment to the labour force as well. In the latter group, some will have very precarious employment prospects, while others have stable options they are quite happy with.”

Changes in the workplace

Lauren Bondar, 35, has taken two maternity leaves. After her second child, the Toronto-based PR professional decided to start work at a new company.

Bondar says her current workplace, NKPR, is very understanding of her being a mom while also having a career.

“In PR, which is predominantly a female-dominated industry, I think companies today understand that flexibility and support of working moms and parents is key to their overall business success,” Bondar said.

“I also think being a mom makes me better at my job.”

Schirle says women who plan on becoming mothers often seek workplaces that have clear parental leave policies in place. If a woman has a job-protected maternity leave, she will face fewer negative career consequences when she returns, Schirle said.

“Career planning and becoming a parent are decisions that cannot be separated — especially for women,” Schirle added.

Making career moves

Janet became pregnant again two years after her first child was born. Two months before she was set to go on her second maternity leave, a manager role became available, but her company hired externally. She felt she was overlooked for the job.

She eventually decided to find a new job instead of returning to the company.

At her new job, she felt like she had to prove herself by staying late, coming in early and answering emails all the time.

“I don’t think it’s ever fair for mothers, to be quite honest,” Janet said.

“We’re expected to give it our all at home and at work, and truth be told, many of us are exhausted. We wait for the clock to hit 5 p.m. to go home to our kids but fear the rest of the team will think we’re being lazy or aren’t committed.”

Tammy Schirle is an economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University