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How women can prevent longer maternity leaves from hurting their careers

CTV News with Ivona Hideg 27 September 2018

Mothers who take advantage of Canada’s newly expanded parental leave benefits may be putting their career advancement at risk, but a new study says there are things they can do to turn that situation around.

Researchers from Canada and Australia have found that women who take longer maternity leaves are less likely to be granted promotions or hired for new jobs even after they have returned to work. However, that bias can be overcome if job applicants provide employers with extra information demonstrating their commitment to their careers, researchers say.

“Women oftentimes … return to the office and see somebody being promoted over them, or they see that somebody else is getting a higher salary than them,” Ivona Hideg, the study’s lead author and an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business, told CTVNews.ca.

“It’s not just women who have kids … but somehow it’s women who seem to be taking the hit for this in terms of their careers.”

It isn’t a coincidence. Research has shown that employers subconsciously question the ambition and commitment of women who take year-long maternity leaves, and view them asless suited to management and other high-level positions compared to women who took shorter periods of time off after giving birth.

“It’s really sad to see that once you take the longer leave, somehow you’re deemed to be less of a good employee and less hirable and less promotable,” Hideg said.

Hideg and her team, in what they say is the first research of its kind, gave hiring managers a series of resumés with slight differences. They hoped to find a way women could counter the negative perceptions of long maternity leaves. They found two.

One is to make use of corporate “keep-in-touch” programsand mention them during their job application process. These programs, which allow workers on leave to stay engaged with what is happening at their workplace,are popping up at major companies in the legal and consulting sectors.

The other is to have a supervisor provide a reference describing the woman as ambitious or career-focused.

Either of those methods, the researchers say, impresses hiring managers enough to counter the perceptions associated with a long maternity leave.

The federal government expanded coverage for parental leave last year, allowing new parents to take up to 18 months off work while receiving employment insurance benefits.

In addition, new parents will be able to share up to eight weeks of leave starting in 2019, provided both parents are caring for the baby.

The work of Hideg’s team has been published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Hideg says her next research will focus on how men are perceived by hiring managers after taking parental leave.