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Shibani Ahuja (R), her partner Sharon Chung and their seven week old son Carter.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In 2017, Shibani Ahuja was nearing the end of a four-year expat work assignment in the Philippines when a former manager reached out to her. The manager now worked at Toronto-Dominion Bank and wondered whether Ms. Ahuja would be interested in working for the bank.

Ms. Ahuja, who was born in India but raised in Toronto, was excited about the idea of returning home. But more important to her were TD’s policies around inclusion, diversity and parental leave. Ms. Ahuja had recently come out as bisexual. At the time, she was 36 years old and knew she wanted to start a family soon.

While she was navigating the application stages, Ms. Ahuja felt cautious about asking about maternity benefits directly. “Sometimes you don’t want to tip off an employer that you’re joining the company and you’re immediately going to go on mat leave,” she says. “You hope that’s never going to be the thought that crosses the mind of leaders, but the reality is, you know it does.”

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For job applicants exploring the market, determining a company’s parental leave policies is a difficult task. “Maternity discrimination is real,” says Allison Venditti, a human resources expert, career counsellor and founder of the group Moms at Work. She says that most companies don’t make their parental leave procedures and policies public. “People are forced to ask, which is sort of like shooting yourself in the foot,” Ms. Venditti explains.

Despite a high demand for talent and increased awareness around issues such as pay equity and transparency, Ms. Venditti says there is still a “real risk that employers are judging parents or potential parents,” she says.

Luckily, Ms. Ahuja already knew someone in the company, her former manager, that could give her the inside scoop on the company’s benefits and policies. Her approach falls in line with Ms. Venditti’s advice, which is to tap into personal and public networks. Instead of asking directly, try accessing community groups on Facebook, LinkedIn and organizations like Women Who Freelance, she says. “People are getting clever,” she says. “They’re using their community groups and asking, ‘Does anybody work here? What are the benefits?’”

Ivona Hideg, an associate professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto, researches gender issues in the workplace and agrees that connecting with personal networks is a good way to suss out a company’s parental leave culture. But if that’s not possible, applicants can wait until they’re presented with a firm job offer before asking outright about benefits to avoid biases in hiring.

“Once you have an offer, that’s a very different ball game,” she says. “This is the time to start asking questions. What kinds of parental leave policies do you have? What kinds of support do you offer to new parents? Do you have any on-site child-care services?”

If companies give vague or inadequate replies to questions about parental leave policies, Dr. Hideg says, this is a red flag. “The lack of responses signals that either they don’t have a very supportive culture, or maybe they just haven’t been hiring new parents lately,” she explains. “Or it could be that they hire mostly men who haven’t been asking these kinds of questions.”

Parental leave policies, like top-ups to government employment insurance maternity and paternity benefits, can look great on paper. But they might not necessarily translate to a supportive culture in practice.

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So Dr. Hideg also recommends that prospective hires, once a firm offer is received, should request to speak with staff that have taken parental leave recently. The goal is to learn about their experiences for a fuller picture of parental leave culture.

Another tip is to ask how many people that have taken parental leave have since been promoted, or how many parents, specifically mothers, hold executive positions in the company. “It’s unfortunately a very gendered assumption that, once you have a baby, you’ll never be an ideal worker because now you’re going to be more devoted to your family, says Dr. Hideg.

Dr. Hideg and Ms. Venditti both encourage employers to be more transparent about advertising their parental leave policies. Dr. Hideg says that having good parental leave benefits, like topping up government benefits or developing a formalized return-to-work program, will help companies attract a more diverse and highly qualified pool of candidates.

“The tides are changing,” she says. “The work force, in general, is looking for more work-life balance. Both men and women are looking to be more engaged and involved with their families. This is quickly becoming a priority, unlike any previous generation.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also made it more acceptable for workers to inform their employers about child-care duties, which is a good thing, according to Dr. Hideg. “Employers are probably more likely to showcase and advertise their family-related benefits as they know the impacts of the pandemic on working parents, especially women,” she explains. “Wise companies are using that knowledge to be pro-active in their recruitment when advertising the benefits of working for them.”

This makes it easier for candidates to determine which companies are more family-friendly without having to ask about it themselves.

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Six months after Ms. Ahuja accepted a role as an HR associate vice-president in May, 2017, she began dating Sharon Chung, TD’s head of diversity sourcing, diversity and inclusion in Canada. In November, 2020, Ms. Ahuja found out she was pregnant. She says her boss has been incredibly supportive and that she was even promoted to a new role in May, 2021, that’s part of a major transformation for the company. She was given that new role despite her team knowing about her due date.

“I was stunned,” she says. “They were willing to put it on pause and find a way to back me up.”

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