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Canadian maternity leave program challenges the 'motherhood penalty'

Maturn challenges the systemic cultural bias and beliefs toward working mothers.
Currently in Canada, mothers earn salaries on average 12 per cent lower compared with non-mothers and are 8.2 times less likely to receive a promotion compared to women without children.

People often make the comparison between maternity leave and a holiday but anyone who has taken time away from work to care for a young baby knows this is far from the truth.

Sure, for some, maternity leave involves long stroller walks, singing lessons and endless coffees. But behind the scenes are sleepless nights, loss of self, unexplained crying and, for many, a feeling of isolation and helplessness. 

This fall, Jen Murtagh and Sonja Baikogli Foley launched Maturn, the only comprehensive maternity leave program in Canada focused solely on the crucial transitions to and from maternity leave.

Both women experienced what is often referred to as the 'motherhood penalty' when taking time away from work to grow their families; and they’re not alone. Currently in Canada, more than 375,000 women take maternity leave every year and a recent survey showed less than one per cent reported feeling confident returning to work.

“Maternity leave was really challenging for me,” shares Murtagh. “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 maternity-leave experiences.

“We want to evolve the narrative around maternity leave and to support mothers in a really meaningful way. Essentially, we want to see authentic change when it comes to gender equity in the workplace.”

Currently in Canada, mothers earn salaries on average 12 per cent lower compared with non-mothers and are 8.2 times less likely to receive a promotion compared to women without children.

Who can access the Maturn program?

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 available to expectant mothers, birthing, adoptive or surrogate mothers and begins as soon as they find out they’re expecting. There is also support and programming available to corporations looking to support, attract retain and nurture female talent.

“Maternity leave and the years surrounding the birth of their first child represent the largest single point that women off-ramp from organizations,” says Murtagh. “They 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 made up of mothers who had been there before me. Or a support structure to help me anticipate those challenges so I could be prepared.”

Global software company SAP was the first to join Maturn and offer the program to expectant mothers across their organization.

“The fact that a company like SAP Canada is willing to make an investment in a female-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 Foley. 

“At a time where people are hemorrhaging employees, particularly mothers who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, it’s a really concrete tool for an organization to show mothers that they care, that they see them and that they don’t treat maternity as an inconvenience,” adds Murtagh.

How does the Maturn program work?

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 maternity benefits, what information you need from your employer and support for creating a maternity budget and a will.

Guest experts on topics like health, body acceptance, equitable parenting and more share their experience 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 support, but moreover, a community they can rely on to know they’re not alone.

“Once I became pregnant, I recognized that across all 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 believe that if women felt more supported then 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 Foley. “The bias that we’re not as committed or that we’re distracted must be challenged. Our workforces, our systems, our organizations are not currently compatible with having children. 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 so we can continue 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, organizations and economies thrive. It’s a win all around”

Maturn challenges the systemic cultural bias and beliefs toward working mothers. This includes wage gaps, promotion bias, perceived competence and commitment. They’re aiming for a society that values women at every age and stage of their career.

Each organization that invests in new mothers contributes to an inclusive and equitable society as well as improving the wellbeing and confidence of every individual who chooses to take a maternity leave.