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Striking the balance on maternity leave

When Karla Stephens-Tolstoy discovered she was pregnant, she had no intention of letting that get in the way of her career goals.

At the time, the Winnipeg native was chief operating officer at Oskar Mobil, a telecommunications company in the Czech Republic. She suffered a stroke during her pregnancy but told almost no one. After the birth of her son, she spent two weeks in the hospital recovering due to her high-risk status but held bedside meetings and returned to work after being discharged.

"When you have a baby, everyone is waiting for you to quit so I went right back," recalled Ms. Stephens-Tolstoy, who went on to become chief executive of Vodaphone in the Czech Republic. "It's crazy. I was insane, but I wanted it all."

Her two-week maternity leave may be an extreme case but it raises some questions: How much time should a woman take off work to raise children? And at what point does that time away negatively affect her career aspirations?

In Canada, we may pride ourselves on our generous parental benefits, but even the most family-friendly employer will secretly groan when notified about an employee's pregnancy. There is no denying that long career interruptions affect a mother's earnings, too. The average hourly earnings of childless women were close to 30-per-cent higher than mothers who took more than three years off by age 40, according to a 2009 Statistics Canada report. Mothers who took a shorter leave by age 33, however, were able to catch up to their childless peers.

Ms. Stephens-Tolstoy eventually left the corporate world and returned to Toronto where she launched Tokii, a website designed to help couples improve their relationships. She says running a startup allows her to offer her female employees much more flexibility. This level of understanding can be difficult to find in the business world.

At one point in her corporate career, she hired a woman who had taken eight years off to raise her family. The woman later made vice-president, but her example is the exception, not the rule. In other instances, Ms. Stephens-Tolstoy remembers hiring women who had taken long leaves and then cringed when they quit after a few months. "Everyone is rolling their eyes [when that happens]because it's what they expect women to do," she said.

Any whiff of a lack of commitment haunts women when they try to return to the work force. For mothers trying to navigate their back-to-work plan, overcoming perceptions about loyalty and commitment are not their only obstacles. Creating a résumé, preparing for an interview and being up-to-date on industry topics can all be daunting, says Beatrix Dart, associate dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and executive director of the Rotman Initiative for Women in Business.

Rotman runs a back-to-work program designed for those who have been out of the work force for several years and want to rebuild their careers. This year's participants hold a mix of undergraduate and graduate degrees and have been out of the work force for an average of six years.

The back-to-work program saw more than 60 per cent of its first-year graduates employed in their preferred roles. Dr. Dart said the demand for this sort of program is so great, they could have filled the program four times over. It also helps build a professional network, which women often lose when they drop out of the work force.

The companies involved in the program also benefit. Toronto-Dominion Bank sponsors the program and other supporting organizations include KPMG Inc., Microsoft Canada, Rogers Communications and Xerox Canada. What company wouldn't want to bring highly skilled women back into their companies? "They are probably your most loyal and grateful employees for having the chance to come back in," Dr. Dart mused.

Jennifer Hinder, a current participant in the back-to-work program, believes such programs benefit women and businesses alike. "So often, women are forced to choose between all or nothing, so they choose to stay home with their families," said Ms. Hinder, who worked in retail marketing and advertising before leaving the work force in 2005.

Businesses should help keep women at work while they are raising children or risk losing qualified employees, she said. "When you consider demographics, corporations are going to have to find better ways to tap into this talent pool."

Leah Eichler is a senior editor at Thomson Reuters who writes about women, their careers and success. E-mail:

Follow Leah Eichler on Twitter: @LeahEichlerOpens in a new window

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