In 2016, Sally Traynor, owner of Taproot Salon in East Vancouver, bought out her business partners and decided to take on the company herself. A single parent, Ms. Traynor’s son Gus was two years old at the time.
“I know. What was I thinking, right? He was a toddler and I was running my own business,” she says. “But I wanted to create an environment [that] I wanted to work in, where we could all feel supported and whole. And I wanted to make sure that I’m a whole person for Gus because I always want him to get the best of me.”
Ms. Trayner says the costs – mental, emotional and financial – of folding or leaving her business all those years ago seemed simply too high.
“So, I just persevered and did it,” she says.
Ms. Traynor had some help from her parents, particularly when her son was little, but she still had to find full-time child care that accommodated her work schedule. That meant spending her savings on a nanny share (one nanny hired between two families) since traditional daycare wasn’t an option.
She still pays for after-school child care, typically works for hours after her son goes to bed and constantly has to think about a back-up plan in case of emergency or illness. And while she’s proud of what she’s accomplished for herself and her son, it’s not always an easy road.
“At the end of the day, it equates to an obscene amount of stress,” she says. “It also translates to slower [business] growth.”
Barriers to advancement
Ms. Traynor’s experiences of stress and stalled business advancement are likely relatable for many single parents juggling work an
d family responsibilities.
According to research organization Statista, Canada has about 1.83 million single parent families, compared to 1.56 million in 2010.
Single parents seeking career changes or advancement face numerous barriers. But the biggest issue, particularly for single mothers, is child care, says Leah Nord, senior director of Workforce Strategies and Inclusive Growth at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
Individuals unable to afford or secure child care may only be able to work part-time while their child is in school. (While all Canadian provinces and territories have signed on for $10-a-day childcare, there are questions about when it will take effect and whether there will be enough child-care workers and spaces to meet the demand.)
There’s also a work phenomenon sometimes referred to as “proximity bias,” which happens when people are promoted or given career opportunities because they are seen at the office (as opposed to working from home). That bias can benefit workers who are able to attend evening events or have after-work drinks with co-workers, says Ms. Nord.
“Particularly the ‘extras,’ the networking events outside of office hours, these are the things that are often off-limits to single mothers,” she says. “They have to make the choice between paying for child care or [not] attending an event that might help their career.”
Ms. Nord says the solution is more child-care options, both flexible and affordable. Without improvements in this area, women’s representation in the c-suite will continue to lag.
As part of her job, Ms. Nord oversees the Chamber’s Council for Women’s Advocacy and says that while women in general have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, she and her team noticed a disturbing trend about the age of the women who were forced to leave the workforce.
“Those women that were falling out of the workforce were what we call ‘core-aged,’ women that are 30 to 40,” says Ms. Nord. “Our Council was really concerned about that because that’s the pipeline towards the higher, more executive positions.”
It’s also another blow to an economy that is dealing with record-breaking labour shortages. According to Statistics Canada, there were 915,500 unfilled positions in the fourth quarter of 2021, an increase of 63 per cent compared to 2020.
That’s one of the reasons why Ms. Nord says, “Child care isn’t a women’s issue, it’s an economic issue.”
Businesses will have to “get creative” about retention strategies, she says. That could mean allowing for split work hours that are more aligned with school hours, or offering in-house child-care options. Still, warns Ms. Nord, it’s likely that businesses will feel the impact of single mothers exiting the workforce for years to come.
Changing the conversation
Perhaps there’s also a need for us to change the conversation about what “career advancement” looks like for women, and specifically for mothers, says Jessie Harrold, a women’s coach and doula in Halifax, N.S. Ms. Harrold specializes in helping women through what she calls “transformative life events,” from childbirth to career transitions.
“A lot of women I work with end up making major changes to their careers because they might want to be closer to home, and they shift those values around different needs,” says Ms. Harrold. “It’s the cultural soup that we’re swimming in that says that that’s a bad thing and that mothers are opting out.”
Some women Ms. Harrold works with become stay-at-home mothers after having their child because they realize that’s what is best for them. “And all of that needs to be okay,” she says.
Ms. Harrold acknowledges that the choice to work from home, or stay close to family, or take a paycut for a job that doesn’t involve a lengthy commute can come with an immense amount of privilege. “As a single parent, those choices could be even less accessible,” she says.
But she asks: What if the societal notion of career advancement came down to embracing a better quality of life and not necessarily a more impressive title or paycheque?
“What if you become more valuable as a leader, as an employee, as an entrepreneur by becoming a mother,” says Ms. Harrold. “Could that be your career advancement?”
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