Canada Maternity Leave: Women Quitting Jobs After Childbirth A Wake-Up Call For Businesses

Posted: Updated: 06/19/2012 9:30 pm

A QUESTION OF LOYALTY

Jennifer Berdahl, an expert in social power and status in organizations at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says job-hopping while on leave “could be a very rational reaction to the bias women often experience on the job after they return to work after a maternity leave.”

As she points out, research has shown that women often get tagged with the “mommy identity,” and are less likely to get promoted or receive a raise after the birth of a child, “even holding constant their work hours, professional accomplishments and productivity.”

But starting fresh with a new employer, she says, has been identified as one way to avoid this bias, which is sometimes referred to as the “maternal wall.”

“When women begin a job after they have already become mothers, they are more likely to be seen as a valued new hire and recruit than a mother,” she said. “The fact that they are a mother has not been salient in that work environment. It is one of many background characteristics they were hired with, not a new and featured identity they have in that work environment.”

Concern about their ability to maintain work-life balance is another reason why some women leave.

As one Toronto-area lawyer who is currently on mat leave and has been giving some serious thought to finding another job — or career — told HuffPost: “My job isn't 9 to 5. I would not meet my annual targets if I only worked those hours. And, I am constantly ‘on call’ via BlackBerry.”

“When it comes to trying to find more time to spend with a young family, some workplaces aren't conducive to that,” she said.

After getting passed over for a promotion, she says loyalty will no longer factor into the equation should another opportunity come along.

HIDDEN BIAS

All of which presents a challenge for employers, for whom there can be significant consequences when an employee does not return.

According to Corinne Pohlmann, vice-president of national affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), the most common complaint she hears from her members is that they are often kept in the dark about the decision to take another job or become a stay-at-home mom until the end of the leave period.

“Decisions are being made while someone is on maternity leave that aren’t necessarily being communicated adequately to the employer,” she said. “That can be really frustrating because most [employers] have had to find a way to replace that person from up to a year. So they bring in a temp, and then they have to get rid of the temp when the person comes back.”

Related on HuffPost:

(STORY CONTINUES UNDER VIDEO)

While Pohlmann says that small business owners wouldn’t overtly discriminate against hiring would-be mothers (a practice that would violate Canadian human rights law) she knows the prospect of losing potential employees for a year — or more permanently — occasionally creeps into the decision-making process.

“It’s one of those situations where I have no doubt [it] has crossed the minds of some some business employers,” she said. “They would never say anything because they know it’s illegal, but if there are two or three candidates for a position, then that might be one of the factors that goes into deciding who gets the job.”

The potential for discrimination was one of the primary concerns the CFIB raised in 2000, when the federal government extended parental leave benefits, effectively increasing maternity leave in Canada from six to 12 months, she says.

(In Canada, new mothers who have worked 600 hours in the previous year are entitled to 55 per cent of their average income for the first 15 weeks, and the additional 35 weeks of parental leave can be taken by either parent.)

The circumstantial nature of the evidence makes these cases difficult to prove, but Moffatt believes that bias against hiring women of childbearing age is pervasive enough to be contributing to Canada’s gender wage gap, which is estimated at more than 20 per cent.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR BUSINESS

But rather than freeze out would-be parents, experts say it’s in the best interest of employers to put policies in place aimed at retaining them by supporting work-life balance, fostering growth — and offering incentives to those who return after taking leave.

Many companies are already trying out various family-focused retention schemes.

At Postmedia Network, for example, the company provides top-ups to mat leave benefits that vary across the organization, which spokeswoman Phyllise Gelfand says are “intended to encourage employees to come back.”

But this carrot also comes with a stick.

As she explains, “In the event that an employee receiving this benefit elects not to come back, the top-up is payable back to the company.”

In Australia, meanwhile — where mat leave is paid for 18 weeks, can be extended for up to one year and may be taken by either parent — one of the country’s private sector companies recently instituted a bonus program for new moms, who will receive double pay during their first six weeks back on the job.

Quick Poll

Do you think it's OK to quit your job while on maternity leave?

VOTE

In announcing the move, Mike Wilkins, chief executive of Insurance Australia Group, which is a leader in maternity leave benefits, acknowledged that the bonus was “generous,” but said it was “about making sure we get quality people coming back to us."

According to Gary Gannage, president and CEO of the Association of Management, Administrative and Professional Crown Employees of Ontario (AMAPCEO), being branded as a family-friendly employer pays off.

Gannage can’t recall an instance where a new parent hasn’t returned following leave, a record he attributes, in large part, to policies that support work-life balance and generous benefits, which include top-ups of as much as 93 per cent of salary for maternity leave for 52 weeks, and parental leave for 37 weeks.

“As a recruitment tool and also as a retention tool, you have to have progressive workplace policies and entitlements that would enable such individuals to come and work for you, otherwise you’re going to lose a competitive advantage to others who have much more attractive workplace policies,” he said.

As for new moms and dads looking for a new job while on leave, experts and employers agree that the sooner notice is given, the better, particularly in the age of job-hopping, where quitting is rarely goodbye forever.

Monier-Williams says that giving her former boss an early heads-up, and the fact that the department had found a competent temporary replacement, was part of what helped make her transition a smooth one.

In the end, she says that her team and those in the human resources department were “understanding” when she told them she was leaving.

“It’s not the first time they’ve had that conversation,” she said, “and I don’t think it will be the last.”

FOLLOW CANADA BUSINESS