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Maia Grecco

In fall 2020, Knix Wear founder and CEO Joanna Griffiths hosted an investor meeting and overheard people mumbling something along the lines of: “Who would give money to a pregnant person?”

Ms. Griffiths was due in the spring with twin girls, and planned to raise money over the winter before a brief maternity leave. She had previously raised money while pregnant with her son, and had to endure snide remarks about her abilities.

“I was not in a position to stand up for myself at that time,” says Ms. Griffiths. Now, Knix pulls in annual revenues of around $100-million.

Ms. Griffiths decided that anyone who implied she was not up to her job because of parenthood would be removed from the investment process by her bank.

After raising $53-million, having her twins and returning to work, Ms. Griffiths made her unique stipulation public. Women flooded her social media channels.

“So many had similar stories, having faced discrimination or microaggressions. People were excited to see someone like me standing up to it,” she says.

The mommy penalty

“We know that women taking leaves incur penalties and negative consequences at work,” says Ivona Hideg, associate professor in the Schulich School of Business at York University. “The longer you are out of the workforce, the less likely you are to be promoted or advanced.”

Missed promotions, being removed from key projects and fewer pay raises are part of the so-called motherhood penalty, driving many off the career fast track.

“We’re at a time and place where it’s harder, at least in Canada, for organizations to explicitly and blatantly get away with discrimination,” says Gina Grandy, dean of the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Regina. “But this stuff still happens all the time. It’s just more subtle.”

Sidelining of mothers in management likely contributes to the fact that women make up only 28.6 per cent of senior management roles in Canada. Studies also show that many women in their twenties and thirties simply don’t get hired, Dr. Hideg says. One 2019 study called this “potential fertility.”

“Employers will decide against them because they expect they will have kids,” she says.

Fixing the problem

Language around motherhood can contribute to stigma, says Dr. Grandy, such as the stereotype of so-called mommy brain. Studies show new mothers have excellent cognitive abilities – but they are stressed, which can lead to mental overload.

Dr. Hideg’s 2018 study of the negative consequences of maternity leaves found that simply having managers speak positively about a woman on leave boosted her prospects later.

Meanwhile, companies – and society – should encourage more men to take leaves. Currently, just 46 per cent of new fathers take parental leave compared to 88 per cent of mothers.

“When men take a leave, they are substantially changed,” Dr. Hideg says. “They’re a more equal parent, which goes a long way in helping women’s careers.” (It’s good for their marriages too: one study found dads who take parental leave may have more stable relationships.)

Another option to mitigate the impact of maternity leave is to stay in touch with work and major clients, Dr. Hideg says. Research shows women who take advantage of “keep in touch” programs are just as likely to be promoted as women who do not take leaves.

Dr. Grandy thinks we need new language around parental leave. “I think we need to frame them as a brief interlude from work,” she says.

Meanwhile, families need more logistical supports, such as workplaces offering formal return-to-work policies and more daycares that accept infants.

Knix Wear’s Ms. Griffiths knows not everyone has the ability to take a stand against pregnancy discrimination as she did, but hopes others will do what they can, when they can.

“We’ve come a long way,” she says. “But we have a long way to go.”

This story has been updated to correctly reflect Dr. Ivona Hideg’s and Dr. Gina Grandy’s titles.

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

Question: Through my workplace, I was matched with a mentor in a senior role. But since our first meeting, they keep brushing me off when I suggest we meet (in person or by teleconference). I’m frustrated because I really want that mentorship to move my career forward. How can I broach this with my mentor without ruffling feathers? Should I ask to be matched with someone else or do I need to just let it go?

We asked Amoye Henry to field this question. Ms. Henry is co-founder of Pitch Better Canada, a Toronto-based organization that supports diverse, women-led startups seeking capital with data-driven insights and mentorship programs.

It’s a tricky situation to be in for sure, and I recommend that you consider patience and timing to be your most critical and important virtues here. Unfortunately, you may not be a top priority for them and as a result, they are shelving you.

I once had a mentor who ignored me for what felt like six months. I continued doing what I had to do, working hard and working smart, making meaningful connections, making mentorship connections outside of work. It wasn’t until I totally prioritized my own growth and I started gaining local recognition for my work that the same mentor reached out to me and wanted to catch up for breakfast. During that breakfast, I pitched them an idea where I could demonstrate value by working for them on a project. That got their attention and kept them invested in my growth.

You should always remember that people with a lot on their plate can sometimes only take on so much, so it’s important to have your own thing going, always.


Interested in more perspectives about women in the workplace? Find all stories on the hub here, and subscribe to the new Women and Work newsletter here. Have feedback on the series? E-mail us at GWC@globeandmail.com.

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