Maternity leave widens the gap

Andrea Gunraj, a writer for the Canadian Women’s Foundation, points out that out of the 43 countries the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) analyzed, Canada had the eighth highest gender pay gap in 2020.

“The truth hurts,” says Gunraj. “And it's definitely an area that we need to work on. It just shows that we have work to do when it comes to achieving gender equality in Canada.”

That gap starts to present well before many women even decide whether they want to have children, but it widens into a chasm once women prioritize having a family.

In 2018, researchers from Statistics Canada found that interruptions like pregnancies and maternity lead to women having fewer years of total work experience, which cuts into their pay.

The difference is significant. According to a 2019 report from RBC Economic Research based on 2016 Census data, in the first year after birth, women typically see a pay decrease of about 48%.

The researchers said that was easily explained by the fact that most women leave the workforce for the first year of their child’s life. But what did worry them was that data shows women continue to see this earnings penalty for up to five years after welcoming a child into their family.

As for men, not only did the researchers find fatherhood doesn’t limit their earning potential, it often led to an increase in pay.

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The hard road back to the office

Zink wasn’t interested in seeing her career stall because she also wanted a family. When her second child was born two years later, she again took just three months. And while she found herself spread even thinner when she returned to the office, she was able to afford full-time child care that she needed in order to keep her career on track.

Not everyone coming back from maternity leave has the same resources.

A 2021 survey from the organization Moms at Work found that 95% of women returning to the office said they didn’t receive any formal support during their return-to-work transition.

That no doubt contributed to the 40% who reported they considered quitting during the process.

Pressure to stay home

Sarah Kaplan, distinguished professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says while Canada’s year-long maternity leave is great, it also leads to women feeling both internal and external pressure to take the entire year even if they’d like to return sooner.

And over those 12 months, families easily fall into a pattern where the mother on maternity leave is expected to pick up more of the slack around the house, adds Kaplan, who heads Rotman’s Institute for Gender and the Economy.

And that allows the other parent to take on more responsibilities at work, furthering their career.

Even when the mother returns to the office, those expectations remain. And because her partner has been able to grow their career in that time, it’s hers that will take the backseat if the family’s or child’s needs conflict with keeping up at work.

“I think most people, when they end up choosing to leave the workforce or go part time, they do feel like it’s a choice,” says Kaplan. “But the question is, what is structuring that choice?”

If organizations make it difficult for women to balance their work and home lives — whether that means making the transition tough or being inflexible when sick children need to be picked up from school — women will be forced to choose between their career and their children.

It’s not hard to guess which they’ll have to choose to put first — even if they would prefer not to have to choose at all. Kaplan says if organizations truly want to help women advance, they need to offer flexible options for everyone.

“If you make the job unattractive, people will not want the job,” she adds.

This was an issue well before 2020, but the pandemic has exacerbated the situation for many women.

A Statistics Canada study published in May 2021 revealed that a year into the pandemic, women accounted for 53.7% of the year-over-year employment losses.

Women accounted for a much larger share of job losses – nearly two-thirds – in the early days of the pandemic, and researchers suggested that may be due to the allocation of household responsibilities. Women likely picked up more of the work to be done around the house when everyone was working or studying from home.

But it soon became apparent the restrictions — like remote learning — would be around for some time, and many of those women have yet to return to the workforce.

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Sharing leave can help

Although COVID disproportionately sidelined many womens’ careers, Zink says her organization has noticed that it has also led to more men being engaged at home, since they were spending more time there.

That will contribute to narrowing the gap, she says.

“Especially now in the pandemic … people are concerned about keeping good workers, it's really important to start addressing these issues,” adds Gunraj.

Employers can effect change by simply encouraging their male employees to take paternity leave. Zink says that also helps normalize taking leave for women.

“In order for women to be successful at work, we've got to make sure men are successful at home,” she says.

As of 2019, Canadian parents can take up to 69 weeks of leave in the 18 months after their child is born or placed with them for adoption. The extended leave policy entitles parents to 61 weeks, but when the spouse chooses to share that time, the family will be granted an extra eight weeks.

In the U.S., Zink points to Morgan Stanley, which bumped up its paid parental leave for secondary caregivers on its payroll to four weeks in 2017. Steps like that are a great start, she says, but managers must also make it easy for their employees to both take that time and transition back when it’s up.

Change is possible from any position

Zink says Women in Capital Markets encourages its members to seek out both mentors and sponsors. While mentors teach, encourage and inspire you, sponsors will lobby on your behalf for opportunities and raises.

This is a strategy that benefits everyone. Kaplan says helping a less advantaged colleague advance not only helps the worker in question, studies show it also reflects well on the advocate.

“It's kind of a win-win for anybody in a position of privilege to advocate for others, because of not only the impact they can have on others, but also that it actually shines directly back on them in positive ways,” says Kaplan.

Sponsors, meanwhile, will lobby on a woman’s behalf in the room where decisions are made to ensure she doesn’t miss out on advancement opportunities

And you don’t have to be in a leadership position to begin to effect change.

“I'm a big believer in this idea that you can lead from any chair,” says Kaplan. “It's about asking questions and demonstrating thoughtfulness about these issues.”

She adds that while most people find it hard to advocate for themselves, advocating for others is a great way to move the needle.

Zink remembers how much informal networking she had to miss out on during after-work drinks while her kids were growing up. With the pandemic, much of that has moved online, creating more opportunities for working mothers to participate, which is something some of Zink’s partners in Women in Capital Markets have said they appreciate.

“The pandemic is creating a much more level playing field for women and they actually felt like they had much more of a voice,” says Zink. “We have to maintain that as we go back to work.”

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About the Author

Sigrid Forberg

Sigrid Forberg

Reporter

Sigrid is a reporter with MoneyWise. Before joining the team, she worked for a B2B publication in the hardware and home improvement industry and ran an internal employee magazine for the federal government. As a graduate of the Carleton University Journalism program, she takes pride in telling informative, engaging and compelling stories.

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