Canadian women need more help returning to work after maternity leave, survey suggests

Christie Carson-Ginger was excited to return to work after her maternity leave in 2014 and pick up where she had left off as a high-performing key member of her marketing team.

But with no reintegration plan, her transition back to her job was full of challenges.

“It was really entirely up to me to get back up to speed and find where I fit,” said Carson-Ginger.

“I was told to take back all of my old responsibilities, except those had been dispersed to other team members. So it wasn’t really clear how work was to be divided.”

She no longer had a direct manager, wasn’t offered a performance review, and would hear snide comments implying working mothers weren’t toiling as hard as the rest of the team. 

“Once I became a mother, I felt like I was pretty much forgotten. I don’t think that was the intent. But that’s the message that was sent to me when nothing formal is in place.”

Feeling devalued and unsupported, Carson-Ginger left for another job six months later.

Survey highlights maternity leave challenges

According to the 2021 Maternity Leave Experience Report, 40 per cent of mothers surveyed considered quitting when they returned to work. The reasons included a lack of clarity, challenges to office and computer access, and few flexible work options. 

Advocacy group Moms at Work surveyed more than 1,000 Canadian women who had taken maternity leave in the last 10 years. The respondents were employees at many levels from industries including sales and customer service, the trades and corporate sectors. 

The survey found 95 per cent did not receive any formal support during their transition from maternity leave and 33 per cent reported they were discriminated against in the workplace due to becoming, or being a mother.

“[The findings] tell us that we have a system that is broken,” said Allison Venditti, the Moms at Work founder, a human resources consultant and a mother of three. 

“It tells me that this process is not thought out and not managed properly, and it relies on new parents to do all the heavy lifting to try and find the information to navigate for themselves.”

Formal return-to-work process needed, advocates say

Venditti says workplaces should have a formal process for returning mothers that’s similar to when an employee comes back from a disability or stress leave, with the offer of a case manager, meetings, and accommodations like a gradual return to work plan and consideration for daycare transitions.

“Everybody thinks that in Canada because we have maternity leave, that it’s good enough. But maternity leave in Canada really separates women from the workplace,” she said. 

She notes that 69 per cent of respondents stated they weren’t given options to stay in touch with their workplace and wished they were informed of company announcements and changes, social gatherings, promotion opportunities or internal job postings.

Allison Venditti is an human resources professional, mother of three, and founder of the advocacy group Moms at Work, which released the 2021 Maternity Leave Experience Report. (Supplied)

Venditti is calling on companies to manage maternity leaves better. She’s developed a Ready to Return certification program for companies to help manage parental leaves.

“Focusing on women’s leadership courses and whatever is going to do nothing until you fix this because women are leaving right at the point where you want them to rise up,” she said. 

She believes a formal process benefits both working moms and their employesr and helps reach goals for inclusion, diversity and equity.

Returning employees need to know their rights

Employment lawyer Deborah Hudson says she hears constantly from women who are terminated during or after their maternity leave.

“There’s so much discrimination against mothers,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of employers treat the return of women to work as a hassle, rather than something they want to work together on for the benefit of all parties.”

She says it’s important for Ontario workers on maternity leave to know their rights — they’re entitled to return to their job if it exists, or a comparable one if it no longer exists. She says there are exceptions if a department or company shuts down and everyone is let go. 

“Working moms are a huge asset and it’s important we advocate for these issues.” 

Considerations for infant and pregnancy loss

Michelle La Fontaine, who works at the Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centres, is working with Moms at Work to educate companies on giving stronger support to parents who experience infant or pregnancy loss. 

In 2005 and at 20 weeks pregnant, she gave birth to twins who died — a stillborn son and a daughter who lived for six minutes. 

She returned to work three weeks later, which she said was an “extremely distressing experience.”

“I did not feel supported coming back to work and really felt quite betrayed by my employer. I had given a lot to them and really felt like my experience was being downplayed and not validated,” said La Fontaine, who left that job shortly after.

Michelle La Fontaine is a mother of two boys and a stepdaughter. (Supplied)

She says most grieving parents want to return to work after loss because it’s a part of who they were before.

“However, losing a baby changes who you are,” she said.

“[Educating employers] gives them the tools that they need to be able to have those meaningful conversations and be able to offer that support in a way that just hasn’t happened yet.” 
 

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