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After her second year as an executive at an Ontario non-profit organization, Sara (who preferred to not give her last name, fearing recrimination) told her boss she was three months pregnant. He reacted “judgmentally,” she recalls. He said to her: “You just got married two months ago.”

When she returned from maternity leave, Sara said her job increased in scope, so she asked for a raise. “It’s really cheeky to ask for a raise when you took a year off,” her boss said.

“At one point after asking for the raise, my supervisor said, ‘You should just go work somewhere else if you feel that way,’” Sara recalls.

When she ultimately interviewed for a different job, Sara didn’t bring up the fact that she was a new mother. “I was too scared; I was afraid they wouldn’t hire me.” The recruiter had to reassure her that this new workplace “wasn’t hostile” toward parents.

Sara is like many women who face what is known as the “motherhood penalty.”

It’s the “systematic disadvantage that mothers face in terms of pay, perceived competence and benefits compared to childless women and men,” says Joeli Brearley, the author of Pregnant Then Screwed: The Truth About the Motherhood Penalty and How to Fix It. (Ms. Brearley, who was fired two days after informing her employer she was pregnant, later formed a non-profit in the U.K. to fight the motherhood penalty.)

“Ending the motherhood penalty starts with acknowledging bias,” says Sherrie Nguyen, director of product marketing and founder and co-chair of the Parents and Caregivers Inclusion Resource Group at Indeed.

The motherhood penalty hurts women when it comes to compensation, hiring, taking leaves and promotions, affecting five particular aspects of a working mother’s career.

The pay gap

In Canada, having a child decreased a mother’s wages by five cents an hour compared to women without children in 2015, according to a United Nations report. The UN Human Rights Committee report cited a concern about the persisting inequalities between women and men in Canada, in particular how it “disproportionately affects low-income women, in particular minority and indigenous women.” The gap was more pronounced in Alberta and Nova Scotia.

Part of that gap is likely due to the fact that mothers take the majority of family leave and, as a result, are absent from the workforce longer than fathers. Although Canadian parents have 40 weeks of parental leave (five specifically for dads), only about a quarter of dads in Canada use that paternity leave (except in Quebec, which adopted a unique program called the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan in 2006, and approximately 93 per cent of fathers use it).

For full-time employees, there is a 16.1-per-cent difference between annual median earnings of women relative to the annual median earnings of men, according to recent OECD data. In its ranking of more than 40 countries, Canada has the seventh-worst gender-pay gap.

Hiring bias

In the original 2001 study that first coined the term “motherhood penalty,” titled, Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty? participants were told that a communications company was conducting an employment search for someone to head up its new marketing department.

But here’s the catch: They changed the fictitious resumes of the nearly 200 subjects so that some were moms, others were child-free women, some were fathers and others were child-free men (the researchers controlled for race).

The report found that “prospective employers called mothers back about half as often as non-mothers. Fathers, by contrast, were not disadvantaged in the hiring process.”

Not much has changed. A 2015 University of Toronto study, The Motherhood Penalty and Maternity Leave Duration: Evidence from a Field Experiment, found that maternity leaves still affected firms’ hiring decisions.

“The results indicate that the probability of receiving a call back from potential employers decreases initially with a maternity leave,” the study found, noting that “policies to increase the employment of and the labour force participation of women should be targeted specifically to women, in particular women with young children.”

The pandemic has exacerbated these dynamics: Almost half a million Canadian women who left the workforce during the pandemic have not returned to work, according to a March 2021 report by RBC, and more than 200,000 women became long-term unemployed.

“This crisis has created a she-cession and has threatened to roll back the hard-fought social and economic progress of all women,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement on International Women’s Day in March 2021, using the term coined by Armine Yalnizyan, an economist with the Atkinson Foundation in Toronto.

Competence perception

The original motherhood penalty study from 2001 states that “describing a consultant as a mother leads evaluators to rate her as less competent than when she is described as not having children.”

Ms. Nguyen of Indeed says there’s an assumption that women are not as ambitious in their careers when they have a child.

“People assume that you would step back or leave the workforce,” she says.

Again, not much has changed. A 2018 study in the Journal of Social Science Research showed that after the birth of their first child, a mother’s chances of being a manager declined slightly, whereas a father’s chances of becoming a manager rose steeply over the long run.

Maternity leave penalties

Although Canada may have generous maternity leave policies, many women like Sara are penalized for taking it.

One-third of mothers reported they were discriminated against due to being a mother in the workplace, according to the recent 2021 Maternity Leave Experience Report. Published by the Canadian advocacy group Moms at Work, which surveyed more than 1,000 women across Canada who took maternity leave in the past 10 years.

“Maternity leave and the years surrounding it represent the largest single point in which women offramp from corporate organizations,” the report found, noting that 95 per cent of respondents did not receive any formal support during their mat leave transition.

The report also found that 58 per cent of workplaces don’t have formal policies around maternity leave and return to work, and only 10 per cent of women were provided with information about their rights and accommodations for breastfeeding and pumping.

A whopping 40 per cent considered quitting during the return-to-work process.

Daycare problems = Leadership problems

The Moms at Work report noted that becoming a mother represented a turning point for women, leaving a “gaping hole in the female talent pipeline as companies grapple with how to progress women into senior management and leadership positions.”

In metropolitan areas with high daycare fees, the gender employment gap is higher, according to Women in Canada: a Gender-based Statistical Report.

For example, the high cost of daycare and limited space in Toronto and Vancouver were linked to a higher gender employment gap in those cities.

“The cost of childcare in these Census Metropolitan Areas, along with the limited availability of regulated spaces, may play a role in the gender employment gap to the extent that they inhibit mothers’ participation in the labour market,” the report states.

Quebec’s gender employment gap was much lower, the report found, likely due to Quebec’s universal low-fee childcare program and its refundable provincial tax credit for daycare expenses.

The takeaway

Until employers, hiring managers, evaluators and team members become more conscious of their biases, the motherhood penalty will continue to exact a heavy toll on working mothers.

Moms at Work has helped create a “Ready to Return” badge, “Canada’s first and only comprehensive program and certification created to support employers, parents and helping professionals improve the maternity leave and return-to-work process.” It provides training, certification and programming that will give HR and managers the tools and resources they need to implement and understand how to manage this transition.

“Women’s experience of maternity leave and return to work show us the immediate need to remedy these issues,” the Moms at Work report states. “This is a significant transition in a woman’s career and deserves the attention and planning that we provide to other professional leaves of absence. Correcting the issues outlined in this report carries huge economic benefit for both companies and women while helping companies to reach their targets on inclusion, diversity and equity.”

Ms. Nguyen says there needs to be support for working mothers, from the enactment of policy benefits to acknowledgement of their struggles to acknowledgement of bias.

“I want a model for my daughter so that, as a woman, I can elevate myself; I can grow,” she says. “I can take on hard challenges and thrive so that she can see that that’s possible for her, too.”


Statistics Canada, Women and Paid Work, Melissa Moyser, March 2017

U.N. Human Rights Committee, “Concluding observations on the sixth periodic report of Canada,” Aug 2015

OECD data, Gender Wage Gap

Statistics Canada, Study: Family matters: Parental leave in Canada, 2021

“‘The Daddy quota’: how Quebec got men to take parental leave,” The Guardian, June 15, 2018

Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty?” American Journal of Sociology

The Motherhood Penalty and Maternity Leave Duration: Evidence from a Field Experiment,” University of Toronto, 2015

COVID Further Clouded the Outlook for Canadian Women at Risk of Disruption, RBC, March 2021

Statement by the Prime Minister on International Women’s Day, March 2021

Racial variation in the effect of motherhood on women’s employment: Temporary or enduring effect?” Social Science Research, 2018

2021 Maternity Leave Experience Report,” Moms at Work

Advertising feature provided by Indeed. The Globe and Mail’s editorial department was not involved.

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