How to Prevent an 18-Month Maternity Leave From Being a Career Killer

Susan Hodkinson
| 6/19/2019
18-Month Maternity Leave From Being a Career Killer

Over the holidays at the end of 1991, I was enjoying my first Christmas with my oldest daughter. I was also preparing to return to work right after the holidays, which I did, on the day she turned five months old, having exhausted my 17 weeks of maternity leave, all of my accrued vacation and a few extra unpaid days.

When I tell my younger colleagues that I handed my daughter to a sitter at five months old, they are aghast. But things were different then; my employer did not need to hold my job for me, and I had a mortgage to pay.

Since 2017, new parents in Ontario have been able to take up to 18 months’ leave on the arrival of a child. There is an additional five-week “use it or lose it” leave available, only if both parents share the parental portion of the leave. Despite this, the great majority of parents taking the full parental leaves are women. They are taking the time to see their children’s first steps, hear their first words, and to create the foundation of security that so much research says benefits children for their entire lives.

But what about Mom’s career and her future? Can lengthy maternity leaves be reconciled with continuing career progression and satisfaction for women? Not without focused attention from all involved.

There are few jobs in which someone can disappear and return 18 months later without having lost any traction. Women return to their peers having been promoted to the next level – not because those coworkers didn’t have a baby, simply because their learning and development path continued while the new mother’s was put on pause.

The great majority of businesses, particularly small and medium-sized ones, are completely committed to and supportive of the desires of their employees, women and men, to have full and balanced lives. But they also have businesses to run, and accommodating lengthy absences can be difficult, despite best intentions.

In order for women to balance family and career, there need to be commitments on the part of the three major stakeholders in the process: government, businesses and the women themselves.

On a recent trip to Sweden, I noticed how many young men were out and about pushing children in strollers. Sweden has the most generous parental leave policy in the world – 16 months paid leave – but both parents must share it. This spreads the burden of carrying the cost of leaves between businesses, enables women to return to work knowing that their little one is in Dad’s capable hands, and ensures that young children have the benefit of hands-on care from both parents, early on. The other Nordic countries, as well as many EU countries, have significant requirements for leaves to be shared. These policies are widely credited with the progress that the Scandinavian countries have made in closing the gender pay gap to its current 82.5%. The gender pay gap in Canada is 69%. Women who take one, or two, or more, lengthy leaves have trouble making up lost compensation ground, which can lead to frustration and a greater attrition rate out of full-time employment.

In Canada, we should be advocating not for longer leaves, but for shared leaves.

Parents who take leaves need to be supported more proactively by their employers. Technology has made it easier for people to stay connected to their workplaces during their absence, and employers should commit to reaching out to women on leave to keep them abreast of what is happening at the company. They should provide opportunities for parents on leave to keep up with technical developments while they are away, so that their re-learning curve is not so steep upon return. Most importantly, employers should commit to return-to-work plans for anyone returning from leave. These programs do not need to be overly complicated.

Providing returning parents with a summary of what has happened in their absence, a “reintegration buddy/coach” and simply a warm welcome goes a long way. Providing the ability for these parents to ease back into the workforce with part-time, flexible or remote work can also be very helpful, and acknowledges and extends support for the different circumstances under which the employee is now working. It is also crucial, however, for employers not to assume that these employees want to change how they work. I have seen many well-intentioned employers who assume that a new mom will be unwilling or unable to take on challenging assignments that involve long hours or travel, which results in these people being passed over for opportunities for which they might very much still wish to be considered. Sensitive yet clear and honest communication is essential.

Finally, how can a career-focused woman ensure that taking leave to start a family does not derail her progress? While it is definitely her right to step away from her job for 12 – 18 months, expecting that her career trajectory will be unaffected is unrealistic. I recommend that women on leave commit to staying in touch throughout their absences, in a way that works for the employee, their family, and their employer. If the new mom wishes to maintain as much momentum as possible, checking emails periodically and being open to communication updates is important. Staying abreast of technical and other professional developments in her company and industry, in general, will make reintegration much easier.

For most women, life fundamentally changes during and after maternity leave. Not only will how she spends her time change, her focus will likely shift also. When young women ask me for advice as they embark on this new phase of their lives, I am honest and tell them that this will be hard. They need to approach this new life stage with the same practical focus that they maintained during their years of career-building.

Allowing children to have the benefit of hands-on parenting for the first crucial period of their lives is fundamental for an enlightened and progressive society. But so is ensuring that large swaths of talented women in the workforce are not prevented from reaching their full potential. This responsibility falls to our elected leadership, business and us as women. It is up to all parties to prevent maternity leaves from being career killers.

This article has been prepared for the general information of our clients. Specific professional advice should be obtained prior to the implementation of any suggestion contained in this article.

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Susan Hodkinson
Susan Hodkinson
Chief Operating Officer & Partner, HR Consulting Practice