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Business Commentary Employers can - and should - work to end maternal wall bias

Recently, the House of Commons approved a parental leave program, allowing MPs to take up to 12 months of fully paid leave without penalty. While the government is taking steps forward, we are still a long way from celebrating, especially in the corporate sector.

Many women are subject to maternal wall bias, a term used to indicate the stereotyping and discrimination of mothers and pregnant women in the workplace. Despite legal protections, pregnant applicants may face discrimination by hiring committees when interviewing for a job; alternatively, employees already established in the workplace may suddenly become sidelined, passed over for promotions or receive poor performance evaluations once they have children.

According to a 2017 study of 60 non-white female scientists performed at the University of California, 64 per cent reported being affected by maternal wall bias.

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There are countless anecdotes of female powerhouses who suddenly come face-to-face with the unspoken and toxic belief that motherhood is accompanied by a loss of competence, ambition and drive.

According to Sophia Huyer, director of the Ontario-based non-profit organization Women in Global Science and Technology, working mothers are often penalized or miss out on career opportunities because of these assumptions. What’s even worse is that some women are outright scolded for seeking to advance professionally after they become mothers, with certain employees bluntly told that they should “be home with their children,” instead of applying for a promotion or taking on new responsibilities at work.

Apart from having an ethical responsibility to combat maternal wall bias, businesses and employers also have a legal obligation to ensure that their employees do not face discrimination because of family responsibilities.

To start, there is a need to implement more inclusive work policies and benefits, allowing mothers greater flexibility in their working schedules and the performance of their duties, particularly for those with very young children. To this end, paid parental leave, regardless of gender, is key. Offering leave to new fathers as well as mothers not only helps to reduce societal expectations of traditional gender roles, but also gives both sets of parents the opportunity to spend time with their new child without compromising their careers.

Employers should also seek to provide mandatory training sessions detailing the various aspects of what constitutes maternal wall bias and discrimination for all staff and supervisors in order to dispel harmful myths about the commitment and productivity of working mothers. This will also help to reduce the risk of exposing your business to potential lawsuits.

They can also follow the lead of various high-profile organizations that have incorporated policies to ensure a more inclusive workplace for working mothers. In 2015, Netflix announced that employees would be allowed to take unlimited paid parental leave in the first year following the birth or adoption of a child. The policy also permits new parents to return to work part-time, if desired, or to alternate between work and leave during this time. Snap pays for infertility or egg-freezing treatments to the tune of US$40,000 and up to US$80,000 toward surrogacy costs, while Fidelity Canada offers top-up payments for all parents: up to 100 per cent of salary for up to 25 weeks. The University of Toronto provides resources through a dedicated Family Care Office and offers on-campus daycare options for parents. Deloitte ensures access to private specially designed lactation suites for mothers who choose to breastfeed, while Twitter covers the costs of shipping expressed milk if breastfeeding employees need to travel for work.

Whether it’s by implementing paid parental leave, flexible working schedules or dispelling harmful stereotypes, employers can – and should – make changes to ensure that working mothers are able to advance in their career without fear of prejudice or discrimination and that all staff- and promotion-related decisions are founded on legitimate and fair reasons, rather than unconscious bias.

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Fatima Zaidi is co-founder and CEO of Quill, a marketplace for podcasters. She has a degree in employment relations, and worked closely with HR teams before transitioning into sales and techology.

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