Blogs & Comment

The subtle ways taking maternity leave still hurts women’s careers

Even employers who don’t openly call mat leave an expensive hassle speak volumes through their actions

Mother working at a laptop with her baby looking over her shoulder

(Tara Moore/Getty)

Grace was five years into a thriving career at a national law firm when she found out she was pregnant with her first child. When she told her boss, a senior partner, the news, she received perfunctory congratulations, followed by some off-the-record advice: “If you want to make partner someday, you’d better not take more than a few months of maternity leave.” She took six—a fair compromise, she thought—and came back to find the plum cases on which she’d previously worked gone, replaced by dribs and drabs that dashed her dreams of partnership.

Ani dreaded telling her employer, a large public utility, that she was expecting. She was up for a promotion and knew from hearing offhand complaints about mat leave that her condition would diminish her chances. When her stomach grew too big to hide, she fessed up and, sure enough, soon learned she wasn’t getting the promotion. Worn out by a difficult pregnancy, she didn’t have the energy to grieve the decision with her union.

Jen had a great interview with the owner of a small marketing business, a longtime family acquaintance, for a job she was fully qualified for. She felt confident about her chances until the owner dashed her hopes. “Believe me, I’d love to hire you,” he said. “But, frankly, I know you and your husband are planning to have kids, and I can’t afford to hire someone who’s going to take every other year off.”

The names of these women aren’t real, but their experiences are. And they happened in Canada, land of much-celebrated generous parental-leave laws. If this surprises you, talk to any group of women of child-bearing age. You’ll hear similar stories of subtle—and, sometimes, not-so-subtle—on-the-job discrimination based on their decisions to procreate. The unspoken truth is that many employers see mat leave as a costly, disruptive hassle they would sooner avoid—a sentiment that will only deepen if Justin Trudeau makes good on his election promise to extend government-backed parental leave from 12 to 18 months.

(Full disclosure: I have two small children, and after the birth of each I opted to take the full year of combined maternity and parental leave to which I, as a Canadian who made sufficient contributions to employment insurance, am entitled. My employers have never been anything less than fully supportive of my decisions, but I’ve spoken to enough people who haven’t been so lucky to know my experience is not universal.)

This isn’t just touchy-feely stuff—it’s a growing economic problem. A raft of studies has shown that feeling appreciated and valued are key drivers of employee engagement. When women are made to feel burdensome for starting a family, it follows that they start to sour on their work. Some opt not to return to their jobs once their leave is complete (in 2014, more women left the Canadian workforce than any other year in recorded history). Others have little choice but to go back, but they do so with far less enthusiasm than before. Many resent the reduced access to training, promotions and, yes, money (according to Statistics Canada, childless women earn up to 30% more than mothers) that comes as a result of having kids.

That’s bad for these women as employees and bad for the companies they work for. And it’s really bad for the Canadian economy, which needs young women to fill both our population gap (by having babies) and our skills gap (by putting their considerable educations—women now make up nearly 60% of new university graduates) to work.

Fixing this paradoxical situation will require some serious political changes—universal child care would be a start—but employers have to do their part too, and not just by signing off on EI paperwork. How? By offering flex time, remote work options or job sharing to ease the transition back. By crafting career plans with expectant mothers that factor in long-term expectations and ambitions. And by swiftly quashing behaviour that makes those who take leave feel second-class. Because they’re not, and the long-term effects of thinking otherwise will hurt us all.