17 March 2022

Paying the Motherhood Tax

By Jenn Wint

Motherhood is one of the hardest jobs in the world. One that comes with no training, no manual, and a varying pay scale. In Canada, new mothers who meet specific employment criteria receive a maximum 15 weeks of paid maternity benefits and then extended parental benefits for up to 61 weeks. The United States does not have a federal paid maternity act and offers new mothers up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. North America pales in comparison to the government support parents in Scandinavia are entitled to. While financial support through those first weeks of motherhood is important, there are other challenges to a woman’s physical and mental health, wellbeing and career that go largely unaddressed, worldwide. There are also additional economic implications to motherhood spanning beyond those early weeks and affecting a woman’s career for many years postpartum.

The “Motherhood Tax” or the “Motherhood Penalty” describes the ongoing financial consequence women experience for having children. It begins during pregnancy and continues throughout a woman’s career impacting everything from job titles, salaries, being overlooked for a promotion to perception of less competence in the workplace. While Canada is applauded for its weeks of paid leave, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found they have the eighth highest gender pay gap out of 43 countries. According to Harvard University, mothers are also 8.2 times less likely to receive a promotion versus women without children. This motherhood tax persists for at least five years after a woman returns to work following childbirth.

Jen Murtagh and Sonja Baikogli Foley, founders of Maturn, mothers on a mission.

Two Canadian mothers, Sonja Baikogli Foley and Jen Murtagh each navigated two maternity leaves while in executive-level positions. Their maternity felt under addressed as it relates to gender equity and they each recognized a significant opportunity to further support mothers. Transitioning back to their careers with the added title of ‘Working Mom’ was challenging and caused doubt. Unfortunately, their struggles are not unique. Currently in Canada over 375,000 women take maternity leave every year and a recent survey showed less than 1% reported feeling confident returning to work.

Baikogli Foley and Murtagh’s experiences in addition to research led them to create Maturn, Canada’s only comprehensive maternity leave program. Maturn is focused solely on supporting mothers and organisations through the crucial transitions to and from maternity leave. The Maturn program was created to shift the narrative and support systems around maternity leave across the country. It supports working mothers so they can continue to advance in their careers and retain positions of leadership with greater support from employers, partners, like-minded mothers and female leaders throughout their motherhood experience. The program is inclusive of all expectant birthing or non-birthing mothers, and starts as soon as they find out they’re expecting.

“Maternity leave and the years surrounding the birth of their first child represent the largest single point that women off-ramp from organisations,” explains Murtagh. “Mothers feel like they can’t do it and there’s no one to normalize that experience which is so isolating. I would have loved a forum of mothers who had been there before me. Or a support structure to help me anticipate the challenges so I could be prepared.”

“Maternity leave was really challenging for me,” she continues, “I felt lost during the time away and then I struggled on the return. Years later I’m still coming to terms with the way it affected my career and my confidence. Maturn was created as a result of both my and Sonja’s experiences. We want to evolve the narrative around maternity leave and to support mothers in a really meaningful way. Salaries for mothers versus non-mothers are on average 12% lower, which leaves them three years behind before they reach the starting salary of non-mothers. Essentially we want to see authentic change when it comes to equity in the workplace.”

Maternity leave benefits vary by organisation but even some of the largest companies in the world don’t have clear protocol. There’s no centralized system that walks employees through the process so it’s dependent on each situation. Maturn aims to impact not only women, but to facilitate inclusive career paths by supporting organizations and people leaders to best navigate the maternity leave journey. The program offers organizations a concrete way to advance gender equity, retain and grow talent by developing long-term investment strategies in mothers, rooted in evidence and lived experience. 

Inclusive workplaces ensure everyone is present at the table. This requires reviewing existing structures, policies and procedures that prevent mothers from participating. “We developed a management training workshop for people leaders because the onus shouldn’t be only on mothers,” explains Baikogli Foley. “We can’t expect mothers to complete the Maturn program in isolation and come out stronger. To meaningfully advance gender equity, we need to support organisations and managers to build knowledge, understanding and capacity to best support mothers’ maternity leave journey, including the crucial return to work transition.   

Global software company SAP was the first to join Maturn and offer the program to expectant mothers across their organisation. “The fact that a company like SAP Canada is willing to make an investment in a mother-focused program like Maturn indicates that the world is ready to deliberately invest in mothers. If a global tech firm is ready to commit to their equity, diversity and inclusion efforts by walking their talk, we’re heading in the right direction,” says Baikogli Foley. “We’ve had incredibly positive feedback from companies across the country. There’s an appetite for this type of support and if you present an organisation with a solution that makes it easy for them, they’re all over it.” Vancity credit union, a woman-positive financial institution with a 78% female elected board of directors, recently partnered with Maturn and now offers the program across their organization.

Once I became pregnant, I recognized that across the women in leadership events I was taking part in, no one was talking about maternity leave experience and what that does to a woman’s career trajectory.
– Jen Murtagh

The all-encompassing program helps build inclusive and equitable organizational cultures by supporting mothers throughout the maternity leave lifecycle and through their transition back to work. “At a time where organisations are struggling with employee retention, particularly mothers who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, it’s a really concrete tool for an organisation to show employees that they care, that they see them and that they don’t treat maternity leave as an inconvenience,” adds Murtagh.

Maturn is a hybrid program, built to accommodate the needs of expectant and new mothers. There are checklists to guide the transition away from work as well as information about applying for Canadian maternity benefits, required information from your employer and support in creating a maternity budget and a will. Guest experts share their experience on topics like finances, health, body acceptance, equitable parenting in both live and pre-recorded formats to accommodate the fluctuating schedule of new motherhood. The advice and guidance of women who have been through the process is the cornerstone of the program. The aim is to provide women with tools and resources, but moreover, a community they can trust and where they feel deeply supported.

“Once I became pregnant, I recognized that across the women in leadership events I was taking part in, no one was talking about maternity leave experience and what that does to a woman’s career trajectory,” explains Murtagh. “That piece of the gender equity conversation was going unaddressed by the woman who had experienced it themselves. We’re watching women climb the maternal wall before they shatter the glass ceiling. Success involves having to prove themselves twice as much. I believe that if women felt more supported, they would be able to return to their careers excited instead of worried and scared.”

“We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about motherhood,” adds Baikogli Foley. “The bias that we’re not as committed or that we’re distracted must be challenged. Unfortunately, our workforces, our systems, our organisations are not currently compatible with having children. Research shows fathers receive a 6% increase in their pay because they’re perceived to be more serious, more competent, and more committed to their careers. That gender equity piece really motivates me. We penalize mothers for having babies which doesn’t make sense because we need our populations to grow. Women will continue to have babies so why don’t we embrace it? We can create a system that supports women to contribute to our workforces and the labour shortage that exists in Canada. By educating and supporting mothers and their places of work, families, communities, organisations and economies thrive. It’s a win all around.”

By educating and supporting mothers and their places of work, families, communities, organisations and economies thrive. It’s a win all around.
– Sonja Baikogli Foley

Motherhood is a radical new relationship with yourself and the space you occupy, personally and professionally. Now more than ever, post-pandemic, a corporate evolution is essential for women to continue to hold positions of influence, regardless of age or stage of motherhood. Organisations like Maturn are making strides challenging systemic cultural bias and beliefs towards working mothers. This includes wage gaps, promotion bias, perceived competence, and commitment to advancement. Every organisation that invests in new mothers contributes to an inclusive and equitable society. Improving the wellbeing and confidence of every individual who chooses to take a maternity leave will undoubtedly provide value and benefits far beyond a paycheque.

More information about Maturn is available on their website.

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