Christine* sent work emails the morning her daughter was born. It didn't take her long to figure out out the right angles and positions to breastfeed her baby without anyone on her video call knowing she was multitasking. Because she worked at a small company that didn't pay into employment insurance, she didn't get a paid maternity leave, and so, she went back to work less than a week after her first child was born. She was fiercely dedicated to her job.
But none of that was enough. During a conversation with her boss about salary, she was told in no uncertain terms that being a mom limited her work opportunities. She still thinks about the way her employer phrased it: "Together, we could have conquered the world, but you made the good-for-you but disappointing choice to be a mother."
Her boss was a father himself.
"I'll never forget it," she told HuffPost Canada.
"I still have stitches in my vagina," she remembers thinking. "And I'm working."
New mothers lose earnings for five years after having a baby
A new report by the Royal Bank of Canada confirms what many mothers have known for a long time: women face numerous setbacks at work when they decide to have children. Government maternity leave covers up to 55 per cent of a woman's annual salary. In reality, according to the RBC report, which cites the 2016 census, most women make about 52 per cent of their salary during the first year of their baby's life.
But according to RBC, the wage drop doesn't stop after that first year: in fact, women continue to experience "a significant earnings penalty" for five years after the birth of a child. It's particularly pronounced in younger women: 25- to 29-year-olds see an additional 14 per cent of earnings losses over this period. And this is in addition to the standard pay gap: on average, women have earned 13 to 14 per cent less than men since 2011.
These numbers are specific to mothers, not to parents generally. In fact, the report shows that men's wages rise during the period when women's wages are falling, and fathers actually make more money than men without children.
The RBC research was specifically focused on mothers and fathers, and didn't reference same-sex relationships or non-binary people. (Evidence suggests that LGBTQ people earn less than straight people, and that transgender individuals face high unemployment rates.) The study also didn't touch on any of the other factors that have been proven to unfairly limit wages, such as race and disability.
Hostility can be a common reaction from employers
Erika*, a mother of two who works in finance, said she's always been ambitious in both her personal and professional life. She didn't think the two were mutually exclusive until she decided to have her first baby at age 28.
Her boss — also a mother — was hostile when she told her she was starting a family. "She gathered her things, got up from the table and left the meeting," Erika said. "On the way out she chided: 'I thought you were career-focused. I guess I was wrong.'"
When Erika later left that job, the manager position she had held was upgraded to a "senior manager" role, with higher pay but the same level of tasks and responsibilities she had performed, both before and after her maternity leave.
Christine, meanwhile, didn't stay at her job much longer either: she was let go unexpectedly less than a year after she had another baby. Among other things, her now-former boss told her that her decision to take a month and a half off after the birth of her second child made him question her dedication to her work. She was fired "with my daughter watching Mickey Mouse on the TV and with my baby in my arms," she said.
Stories like Erika's and Christine's are exceedingly common. One woman who got in touch with HuffPost Canada said her position was dissolved while she was on maternity leave, and she had to take a $5,000 pay cut for a new position when she returned. Another was told she was being replaced by a woman who was "out of her childbearing years." A third said she was let go as soon as she returned from her mat leave.
A perpetuating cycle
In Erika's experience, once a gender pay gap is introduced, it's easy for it to snowball into something much bigger. "My husband is also a professional, and we both work incredibly hard, yet he's been promoted three times since I had our first child less than four years ago," she said. "He makes 40 per cent more than I do."
When there's so much inequity in pay, it's impossible to have any equity at home, she said. That means fathers continue to progress in their careers while mothers take on more of the unpaid household labour.
The parent whose career has become less essential, financially, is bearing the brunt of that for the family.
"If a child is sick, who should stay home from work?" Erika said. "The upwardly mobile man, destined for a C-level role, making almost twice as much as his wife? For us, it comes down to dollars and cents, so these decisions make themselves."
Christine agreed. When her kids recently got chicken pox, it was assumed by everyone in her household — and, probably, people outside of it — that she would stay home to take care of them. "For most families, it's naturally assumed that if something is happening with the kids, it's the mother's responsibility," she said. "Who decided that I'm the one missing work today?"
That men can thrive at work while women take on more of the childcare is likely part of why they make more money once they have children, Erika speculated. Dads "appear to be doing it all, and keeping it all together, and that makes their performance more impressive," she said.
"Unlike the mother who consistently excuses herself from the meeting that's running overtime, or calls in sick because her child was ill at daycare again. The parent whose career has become less essential, financially, is bearing the brunt of that for the family."
The charge of not being a "team player" is often levied at female employees who tend to their parental responsibilities. Irene*, an accountant, says that's what happened to her after her company cut jobs in her department during her second pregnancy. She said she was regularly working unpaid overtime, sometimes staying as late as 3 a.m., and often working weekends to get the extra work done. When she told her director the workload was too heavy, the director — a woman — told Irene that she wasn't being a team player and that she shouldn't use her pregnancy as an excuse.
The fact that women generally take on more of the household labour, paired with the astronomical cost of childcare in most of the country means it makes sense that more women are withdrawing from the workplace, Christine said. And if they do make the choice to go back to work when their child enters school, it can be really difficult to overcome even a five-year employment gap.
"You miss all those years of professional development, you miss all those years of having a base salary. You just have to come back in. And what does an employer want, somebody who's been doing this for three years and has a proven success record, or somebody that's been at home for seven years?"
Returning from maternity leave, even to employers who are understanding, can mean you've missed out, and are less likely to be considered for promotions or development opportunities.
The RBC report also said women are much more likely than men to work part-time in order to take care of children. This widens the gap even further, since a woman working part-time makes 74 cents for each dollar earned by a woman working full-time.
When asked if she thinks true pay equity is something she'll see in her lifetime, Christine pauses. "I don't know," she finally said. "I just really don't know, and it breaks my heart to say that."
"I know that if I didn't have children, I would be in a very different place, financially and professionally," she said. "There's more opportunities if you don't, there's more time if you don't, you're looked at differently if you don't. It's just how it is."
"I wouldn't trade my children for that at all, but it's the truth."
More from HuffPost Canada:
Canada's federal government recently unveiled a new parental sharing benefit with the aim of making the gender pay gap smaller. But experts say there's a shift in attitude that needs to take place first. In a recent survey, 51 per cent of Canadian men say they worry that taking paternity leave would negatively impact their relationship with their managers and lead to a loss of career advancement.
Erika, too, doesn't foresee much change either. "Sadly, I think every working mom has a story that could be featured in your article."
*Christine is a pseudonym and Erika and Irene asked that only their first names be used. These women requested anonymity out of concern of retaliation or of jeopardizing their professional opportunities.
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