Is maternity leave a bad idea?

The careers of women, and men, suffer when they take a year off work after having kids

by Tamsin McMahon

Blend Images / Getty Images

Shortly after Julia announced to the partners at her Toronto-area law firm that she was pregnant, she found herself being given less work to do. And the company immediately began interviewing for her replacement as head of the firm’s human rights and employment law department. “I became a ghost in the building,” she says. “They told me in a meeting, ‘We don’t know, you could go into labour at any moment.’ At three months pregnant. I was like, ‘Really?’ ”

When she found herself being cut out of workplace emails after her maternity leave started last March she began to assess her options: come back to work after a year and struggle to be taken seriously, or use the time off to start her own legal business. With her daughter in tow, she began combing through her network of contacts and meeting for coffee with prospective clients, including some she recruited through a mom’s group she organized. With two months left on her maternity leave, Julia has plans to hire a babysitter once a week so she can get her business up and running in time to tell her firm she’s leaving.

For Julia (not her real name), 38, the treatment she received after she announced she was pregnant came as both a shock and confirmation of the message she had heard repeatedly in her career at some of Canada’s biggest law firms: “We would go out for drinks, the ties would come off and the men would say: ‘I see a wedding band on a man and I think, ‘Amazing, because that guy’s got to pay the bills and make sure the woman and children are happy,’ ” she says. “ ‘When I see a wedding band on a woman, the first thing I think is liability, because I know that 90 per cent of the time I’m going to have to deal with a pregnancy.”

Her experience echoes what researchers have long chronicled: Pregnancy is among the greatest roadblocks to women’s professional success. But while the debate is often framed as a tug-of-war between women’s career ambitions and their desire to be involved mothers, plenty of evidence suggests it’s not the act of having children that hurts women’s careers, but the family-friendly workplace policies ostensibly designed to support new parents. In particular, the year-long maternity leave that has become one of the most prized benefits offered to working mothers in Canada.

When the federal government doubled the unemployment benefits offered to parents more than a decade ago, it was hailed as one of the most important public policy advancements aimed both at helping workers navigate the transition into parenthood and ensuring enough of the all-important time for new infants to bond with their parents. While the government was careful to allow moms and dads the right to split the 37-week “parental leave” portion of its year-long benefit program, that quickly morphed into a full year away from work for mothers, often followed a year or two later by another year-long leave for a second child. Nearly 90 per cent of new mothers took a parental leave, averaging 48 weeks, according to a 2009 Statistics Canada study. By comparison, just 11 per cent of men outside of Quebec, which has its own paternity leave program, took any paid time off work, averaging just 2.4 weeks.

Few in Canada would argue that paid, job-protected parental leave is a bad thing for families, although the U.K. government quietly considered scrapping the country’s year-long maternity-leave program in 2011 as a way to boost economic growth. At the time, the female head of a right-wing think tank that championed the proposal argued that maternity benefits “too often lead to a downward spiral of earnings and career, a life of near-dependence on the state?.?.?.?and probably an impoverished old age.”

That’s an extreme view and there is ample evidence that countries without any paid parental-leave benefits suffer from having fewer women in the workforce. But the debate over maternity leave raises a number of uncomfortable questions: Could a full year off be too long? Are parents shooting themselves in the foot when they use their hard-won benefits as an opportunity to completely shut themselves off from work?

In practice, the workplace gender imbalances that maternity leave has encouraged hold profound implications for women’s long-term earnings and career advancement. In a 2010 study examining why women continue to earn 20 per cent less over the course of their careers than their male colleagues, TD Economics found that as much as half of the wage gap was due to women taking time off work to raise children. Women lost three per cent of their earnings for each year they were away from work, a penalty that persisted long after they went back to their jobs. While meant as a one-year break, parental leaves also have a way of stretching beyond a year, with some women opting to follow up their paid leave with an unpaid career break of a month or even years, putting them even further behind. A penalty of three per cent a year might sound like a small price to pay for that time off, but the study’s authors estimated a woman who works for six years at a $64,000-a-year job, takes three years off to raise kids and then goes back to work full-time for another 20 years, would lose $325,000 over the course of her career. That includes the money she received from collecting unemployment benefits on maternity leave.

What’s more, they found that the wage penalty was three times greater for women who had taken multiple short absences from work—jumping in and out of the workplace to have more than one child—than those who took a single long break, even if it amounted to the same total time away from work. Employers, they said, tended to view multiple absences as a sign that female employees aren’t committed to their job. That pay gap between men and women also has implications for the broader economy. A 2009 report from the University of Canberra estimated that closing Australia’s 17 per cent gender pay gap would add roughly $90 billion to the country’s economy.

The consequences of women taking a year from work are often far greater than money. A study last year by Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn compared the careers of women in the U.S., where federal laws allow for just 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, to Western countries, including Canada, that had long paid leave benefits for parents. They found that while women were more likely to drop out of the workforce in the U.S., those who kept working were far more likely to be in high-paying jobs, senior management and traditionally male careers like science and engineering. America’s most famous female tech executives, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, both admitted they took almost no break from work after giving birth. Equal numbers of men and women work as managers in the U.S., while in countries with long, paid maternity leaves, half as many women are in management as men. Many women in those countries also end up in low-paying and part-time jobs. In Canada, two-thirds of part-time workers are women, a number that hasn’t budged in 30 years. In short, family-friendly policies such as maternity leave may encourage women to settle for lower-paying jobs, the Cornell economists concluded, while in a perverse twist America’s sink-or-swim workplace culture has encouraged more women to stick it out on the career ladder.

The so-called motherhood penalty at work may be well established, but researchers say the underlying assumption that women are simply choosing to scale back because of a desire to spend more time with their children is deeply flawed. “The issue has been framed in some media outlets that women are basically answering the call of motherhood and wanting to be there for their children and are dropping out,” says Souha Ezzedeen, a professor of human resource management at York University, who studies gender issues in the workplace. “On the other hand, sound scholarly research suggests that they’re pushed out because of the level of inflexibility in the workplace, especially when you’re moving up the ranks.”

Last year, Florida State University professor Irene Padavic and Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely published a paper recounting their experience being hired by a large professional service firm to find out why so many of its female employees were leaving. After interviewing 100 employees, they found that both men and women complained about the punishing 65-hour work weeks. The turnover rate, they found, was actually the same for both men and women, with men equally as likely to complain about work-life balance as women. The only real difference between the sexes was that female employees were far more likely to take advantage of some of the firm’s family-friendly policies, including maternity leave—policies supposedly designed to protect their careers, but which ultimately got them crossed off the list for promotions.

Management later rejected their conclusions, they said, because their recommendations weren’t focused exclusively on women. The belief “that gender was the firm’s primary HR problem, that the nature of the gender problem was women’s difficulty balancing work and family, and that men were largely immune to such difficulties,” wasn’t backed up by evidence, they wrote. Instead, the notion that women, but not men, have a biological imperative to spend less time at work had become a convenient “diversion” that allowed the company to ignore larger problems in its corporate culture.

Indeed, there is a growing body of research suggesting men may face an even greater career backlash from staying home with children than women do, which may be one reason why so few opt to take a leave. In an issue devoted to the topic published last June, the U.S. Journal of Social Issues found that men who asked for flexible working arrangements were more likely to be laid off, while those who had taken time off work for family reasons earned 26.4 per cent less in the long-term compared to those who hadn’t—a larger penalty than the 23.2 per cent drop in earnings for women. The research suggests it’s the leave, and not the gender of the person taking it, that is the problem.

Some companies have started creating programs to encourage new mothers to stay connected with the office. The Toronto office of global PR firm Edelman launched a “maternity buddy” program in 2010 that pairs female employees on leave with a female coworker to meet for coffee or lunch and chat about new hires, big projects or office gossip. “We’re in an industry that has dramatically changed over the last several years,” says general manager Lisa Kimmel. “People were really struggling, not only to make that transition in terms of balancing all the new personal responsibilities, but also in terms of making sure the skills to do their job effectively were also polished and up-to-date, given that a lot changes in a year.”

Last year alone, 15 of the company’s 130 employees participated in the program. No one has quit and the bulk of the participants have since been promoted. Kimmel herself was a buddy to an employee who arranged to be involved with a particularly important new project that started after she went on maternity leave. Despite the program’s success, Kimmel says the company may launch a formal on-boarding program for returning mothers, similar to what they give to new hires, since many women feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of change that happened while they were gone. “Some people said, ‘I felt like I was starting a new job,’ ” she says.

Still, the pressure in Canada for women to shut themselves off completely from work for a year after the birth of a child can be intense. After finding herself bored and lonely during a four-month maternity leave for her first son, Reva Seth, a former corporate lawyer turned consultant and author, opted to take just two weeks for her second son. “I got really horrible responses a lot of times from people about why I wasn’t with my baby all the time after two weeks,” she says, even though as a self-employed consultant she wasn’t eligible for maternity-leave benefits at the time. Her experiences inspired Seth to write The MomShift, a book based on 500 interviews with women whose careers took off after having children, due to be published next month by Random House Canada.

The concept of a year away from work to care for a new baby was fine in a time when most workers could expect to spend their entire careers at the same company, often in the same job, she says. But fundamental changes to the Canadian economy are encouraging more women to become their family’s primarily breadwinner and forcing more workers, both men and women, into self-employment and temporary contract jobs.

Seth argues those trends are rewriting the rules when it comes to maternity leave. While changes to federal employment laws in 2011 now allow self-employed workers to claim parental leave benefits, few of today’s female entrepreneurs can afford to quit working for a year and let their professional network lapse. “The way we view motherhood is changing, underwritten by the seismic shift in how our careers are going to change completely,” she says.

The notion of combining work and maternity leave is gaining traction among many of today’s mothers who say that completely cutting themselves off from work for a year would be devastating to their career advancement.

Weeks after Kristin Taylor made partner at her Bay Street law firm in 2001, she found out she was pregnant. Having spent her entire career in corporate law, Taylor had watched other women at the firm return from long maternity leaves and struggle to adjust to the breakneck pace of change at the office. So before she went on leave, Taylor divided her clients into three groups: those she could delegate to co-workers, those important enough to have her home number in case of emergencies, and those Taylor judged so crucial to her success at the firm she actively worked for them while on leave. For Taylor, who didn’t receive unemployment benefits but continued to collect her salary from the firm while on leave, that meant spending an hour or two a day on the computer at nap time and taking calls while breastfeeding or at Gymboree classes. “I found it helpful to use my brain in a different way,” says Taylor, now a partner at Cassels Brock. “There were a couple of days when if I read, ‘Moo, baa and lalala’ another time I was going to lose my mind.”

It also made for a smooth transition when Taylor opted to return to work after five months on a modified four-day schedule. She found the strategy so successful that she repeated it two years later when she gave birth to her second daughter, opting to take on even more professional responsibilities during her seven-month leave. She says both employers and employees need to have realistic expectations when it comes how much involvement new mothers should have with their jobs after giving birth, so that maternity leave doesn’t become disruptive to either the company or women’s careers. “It’s ultimately really how you want your life to look, how you want parenting to look,” says Taylor, who is an employment lawyer. “But we get really hung up in a way that’s not always constructive about the sacred cow that maternity leave is. When, really, what we should be thinking of is the long-term career progression and how to balance that along the way.”

Critics point out that work-life balance policies such as parental leave are typically aimed exclusively at women and that if more men were encouraged to take time off work to care for infants, then women’s careers wouldn’t suffer as much. By introducing policies aimed specifically at fathers, such as Quebec’s five weeks of paid paternity leave exclusively for fathers, advocates say both governments and employers can make becoming a working parent less of a gender issue. “To the extent that workplaces get used to men, too, taking leave, that can only be a good thing in terms of gender equity at work and at home,” says University of Calgary sociologist Gillian Ranson, who has studied non-traditional families, including stay-at-home fathers and same-sex parents.

A federal government pilot project launched in 2012 that allows people to keep more of their unemployment benefits—including parental leave—if they earn money from work should also give women more flexibility to combine career and maternity leave and encourage more employers to reach out to new mothers during their time off. Even without any new HR programs or policy interventions, the growing number of women who are their family’s primary breadwinner means more couples may simply decide to split their leave benefits differently out of economic necessity.

For Julia, being cut out of the workplace loop while on maternity leave ended up becoming a blessing in disguise since it convinced her that her career would be better off in the long run if she tried to strike it out on her own. “If I were coming back, I’d be pretty hurt and disenfranchised. But I don’t feel that residual guilt that I would if they were treating me well and trying to get me to come to this barbecue or that client event,” she says. “So far, it’s just been empowering.”




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Is maternity leave a bad idea?

  1. Maybe it is a simple rule of thumb; if you are replaceable for a year, then you aren’t worth quite as much as otherwise.

    • The cemeteries are full of indispensable people ….

    • its also a simple rule of thumb that most companies will find any excuse they can find to not pay women what they are really worth.

    • Anyone is replaceable. I guess this explains why most men won’t take a year-long leave – to avoid losing their spot – and fortunately for them they generally have the option.

  2. As an employer with 2-3 ft staff, 7 pregnancies in 3 years, I offered my staff the option to come back part time increasing workload to ft gradually. 2 staff took this option, 2 staff left permanently, 2 took 1+ years. Worked well for me.

    • That is a nice balance you have offered that is practical for both the worker and employer. It reflects reality.

      We are too embedded with work or no work, when the reality is we need flexibility that is fair to all parties, in not just pregancy but also retirement.

      What is wrong with say turn 55 work 4 days, turn 60 work 3 days and turn 65 work 2 days? Ditto pregnancy. Disabled too.

      • Dave, you have no idea of the reality. Companies want nothing to do with disabled, because they view them the same way as pregnantcwomen – liabilities, burdens and too much to deal with. The reality is that that is untrue in every way. If only it were that easy and always possible for all disabled who can work and all new mothers (as well as older people) to find part-time work…heck, sometimes any work!!!

  3. Is the only thing that matters your career? Why would one expect to take a year off for each child, and have the same career trajectory as someone who didn’t? Raising a family requires sacrifice. I would think that is an obvious point that shouldn’t even have to be made. Yet this is news to some people?

    • It is news for some that have been taught to ignore economics and career reality.

  4. The reality is that young women are being told lies, lies and lies about the ability to have a fantastic career and be a mom at the same time. It is NOT possible unless you spouse is highly successful (and well paid) in his career AND provides lots of support at home (which is incompatible with being highly successful and well paid).
    Women wait too long to have their first child (over 35) which decreases their ability to have children (in spite of what feminists will have you believe, ask any doctor and they will state clearly that women’s fertility goes down after 35) and usually comes at a time when they are most productive in the workplace. So yes, employers are pissed when highly skilled and experienced women take a year off for mommy duties, no matter how much an employer might support the concept in principle. It is highly disruptive to the workplace, especially if the workplace is small (under 50 employees).
    If women want to do the mommy and career track – fine and the policies in place to support that are there. BUT what is missing are the policies that provide for women to stay at home if they choose and to have tax breaks for a two parent family.

    • We all get lied to. Woman up.

  5. Amazing how many people ignore the reality, businesses only survive as long as its employees produce something for their wages. Fact is, if you are off work (man or woman) you have to accept less one way or another.

    Unless both parents make lots of money, and I mean lots, it pays to have one stay at home to reduce costs and increase the value of life. Many working couples end up losing the second dependent spouse deduction, having 2 cars not one, two work expenses and child car biggie costs….adds up that you could be working for nothing but taxes and avoidable expenses.

    If the lower income spouse isn’t making over $50k/year, then the lower income one should stay at home.

    Part of why domestic population growth is negative and only 1.5 kids per family, we are are too busy supporting government kids. Over taxed singles can’t save for a good deposit on family homes, taxed for double incomes, can’t save properly for kids educations and retirement, then broke and taxed in retirement.

    Bottom line, if you want 2 career families, its going to cost you. After a brutal period of 30% unemployment and my wife got laid off in the middle of it, after 200 resumes I asked, you are of more value looking after our home….I get tax deductions, you can save in savvy shopping and planing, we cook together at home for a night out, share one good car — what we lost in income we saved in taxes and expenses — and a better quality life.

    Less $10,000+ for second auto depreciation/expense.
    Add $11,000 income tax deduction for spouse.
    Less $8,000 in expenses from food and other for savvy shopping.
    Less $5,000+ employment expenses and travel costs.
    Less many 1000s in EI/CPP/other employment taxes, one employer cost covers family.
    Less $12,000 per child care services.

    You have to make a lot of money on the lesser income to financially justify working for both spouses. As you could make $50,000 a year and end up break even (zero loss, zero gain) after costs and taxes are all accounted for one or two children.

    We are all too busy supporting government children. Even $200 of dental services spend ends up in taxes as inflation because $100+ ends up in income/employment/insurances/property/utility/hidden taxes you never see but get billed for.

    Yes, I just eluded to a $50k/year man, a $80k woman, the man should stay home.

    • That is so 1950′. Nevertheless, I hope little wifey is happy and that she is bringing you bourbon as soon as you are coming!!!!!1

  6. Seriously? If someone wants to take a shorter mat leave, there’s nothing to stop them. But the benefits to family, breast-feeding rates, health of the child, opportunities for unemployed people to get good experiences on their resume (and possible jobs when the mom decides to not come back) are all great for our society, and the financial welfare of our country. That mat leave impacts a person’s career is a pretty bogus downside, since it’s completely optional. There’s nothing to stop a parent returning to work the day after they give birth if they so choose.

  7. Where is there any mention of the child’s best interests in this article? Why do people choose to become parents if they don’t want to spend time with their babies / children? I honestly do not get it.

  8. If women take time off to have children, the other workers should get paid for doing their job instead of having to kow tow to their very selfish whims. Having children is a choice. I worked with one woman who came back from her second maternity leave pregnant with her third child. Even before she had children she always came in late.

  9. yet another excuse to pay women less than men, and written by a woman no less

  10. A year off is a long time, I had 8 weeks maternity leave for both my sons in 78 and 81. I consider myself a good mom and both my boys are fabulous young men who contribute greatly to this country. I think women have to reconsider the one year and start looking at 3-6 months off.

    • What is good for you, might no be good for others. it is not just about you. Let people decide for themselves.

  11. People in these posts seem to think that having a child is in the same league as deciding to go on an extended vacation, or taking a sabbatical to go back to school, or simply deciding you don’t want to work for a while. It’s not. If all women decided they didn’t want to stop work to have children, where would it leave our society. We would disappeared pretty damn fast. So women contribute to society by having children. It serves a purpose folks. So why shouldn’t they be compensated for that? It’s bad enough that women do not get a salary for looking after a family, a household, etc.

  12. What a strange article to be talking about the value or danger of taking Maternity leave without once considering the benefits for the child. Suggesting that it’s best to return to work ASAP – two weeks even – is ridiculous when you take into account the needs of a newborn. Breastfeeding, nearly constant touch and care. These are the things that create healthy babies. Yes it sucks that due to the current culture women and men who take time to take of their family suffer professionally. However, I don’t believe the answer is to prioritize work over the well being of children. Where are our priorities as a culture when money has become more important than our own children? I find this article one sided and short sighted. Poorly done.

  13. This article is everything that is wrong with our society’s view of work/life balance for women, and belongs in the dark ages. In a country where the birth rate has declined dramatically and continues to decline, there is a lack of acknowledgement and support for women and men who become parents. Who will take care of us as we age? Do we as a country want to rely solely on immigration to grow our population? The economy wants women to work, we need children to become future consumers, and well, let’s face it, women are the only ones so far able to have children. Perhaps the thinking behind this article is backward. We need to think about how we can support women to work, should they choose to and show employers the value of keeping women interested and paid well enough to work, instead of the other way around. So much value is placed on women working outside the home, and so little value placed on the work of the SAHM. I would like to see an article on how much money a family SAVES by having a parent stay at home versus going back the workplace. Well done Macleans for showing a chauvinistic old school way of looking at parenthood.

  14. Its reassuring to read the numerous comments from individuals who recognize the one-sided view of this article. Work and money are not the be all end all. Raising a family is a success in itself and mothers should be valued for the work they do in the home. Yes, raising children and running a home ARE work. That’s why when women do return to work they have to pay other people to care for their kids and help with their home. The women who choose to return to work sooner than a year have a right to make that choice as well, but their choices should not result in regarding those that don’t with critism or pity. Poor article.

  15. I think the title should be “Is having children a bad idea” instead – having time to take care of your baby is a good idea, but apparently for women it is still a penalty when you have children..

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