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'Longer maternity leaves perpetuate and reinforce the stereotype that women are homemakers and carers of children, and they don’t have strong career ambitions,' a researcher says.

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The Globe’s bimonthly report on research from business schools.

Parental leave is a hot topic among working mothers who want to stay home with their babies as long as possible, but fear that being out of the office for too long will hurt their careers.

Leaves are intended to make it easier for parents – women, in particular – to balance work and family responsibilities. It’s the reason why several countries, including Canada, have opted to extend parental leaves to up to 18 months.

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But there are also downsides associated with longer leaves, according to Ivona Hideg, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics in Waterloo, Ont.

Her newest research examines these unintended impacts of maternity leave on women’s careers, and the gender stereotypes and subtle biases that drive these results. The study also identifies key steps that can be taken to better enable mothers to care for their young children without fear of penalty from an employer.

Specifically, the study adds to anecdotal and scientific evidence that suggests women who take longer leaves (defined in the study as 12 months or longer) are often seen by office decision-makers, such as hiring managers, as lacking in ambition, drive and dedication to the job. That perception, in turn, can sideline an employee from future leadership positions.

“In other words, longer maternity leaves perpetuate and reinforce the stereotype that women are homemakers and carers of children, and they don’t have strong career ambitions,” says Dr. Hideg in an e-mail.

The study also finds that women are just as likely as men to hold these stereotypes of female employees who took a one-year leave, and to evaluate them less positively.

There are ways to mitigate potential career damage, however.

For employers, it’s critical they be aware that subtle bias and stereotypes come into play when employees are being evaluated for promotions and other workplace rewards.

Talking about the issue openly helps.

“Usually, we avoid these discussions. We all like to think that we’re objective and not influenced by such things as stereotypes, but avoiding the issue will only perpetuate the problems,” says Dr. Hideg, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management.

The study further recommends that organizations do a better job of providing women on maternity leave with avenues to stay in touch with the workplace and co-workers if they wish to be connected. That could mean allowing women to keep possession of business laptops, phones and other communication devices during their leave, or providing women on leave with feedback, references or training to make their return to work more successful.

Women also need to be aware that longer leaves may have negative consequences for their careers, and seek to demonstrate their continued ambition for work during their absence, including taking advantage of policies and programs that allow them to stay connected to the workplace, or finding a sponsor within the company who will advocate on their behalf.

“There are ways in which women can emphasize their ambition and career dedication without cutting their leaves short,” says Dr. Hideg.

The research will continue, next examining how men’s careers are impacted by parental leave.

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The study is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It is co-authored by PhD candidate Anja Krstic of Wilfrid Laurier University, Raymond Trau of RMIT University in Australia, and Toronto-based independent consultant Tanya Zarina.

Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahkristine@gmail.com.

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