The Milk Bottle Ceiling
Updated: Jun 4
Not to be funny, but unless Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie Junior becomes a reality anytime soon, women, are in fact, the only sex that can bear children. Whether we’d like to admit it or not, this biological reality sits at the centre of equality issues for women.
While diversity and inclusion is at the top of most organizational agendas unconscious bias (or conscious?) still exists when it comes to hiring and promoting women. Despite the fact that this has been a key priority for the last decade or more, we don’t see organizations making as much traction as we’d like. Maternity leave is still seen as a “resource burden” to be dealt with and leaders wonder what a potential leave might mean for the role or the organization. Again, conscious or not, women are acutely aware of the internal talk track going on in the minds of hiring managers and so the question for women at some point in their careers becomes “career or family?”
Worrying about work, life, family and balance actually begins when your new addition is merely a glimmer in your eye. The Bright Horizon 2019 Model Index study notes that more than 65 percent of women without children worry about what having a child will mean for their career. Sixty five percent is staggering, and acknowledges that this continues to be a massive career hurdle for women. Over my next three blog posts I will dig into the issues specifically facing women who are are in various stages of thinking about having a family, on maternity leave or back at work. Today’s post begins this series, focusing on women in the “child bearing years” who are contemplating having a child, and thinking about what that means for their career.
When I was in the stage of thinking about whether or not to have children, the career advice I heard over and over again was: Lie. Until you are actually pregnant, be prepared to lie and say that you don’t think you will have children. I personally didn’t understand this advice, until one day it hit me square between the eyes. During a career conversation where my boss and I were discussing a new role and potential promotion I heard the words: “well, don’t you want children? when are you planning on starting a family?” The reality of the unfair choices women have to make, hit home like a punch in the gut. So, I lied. “I am not sure I want children” I said. Later, when I actually became pregnant, the lie continued, as if I should somehow be ashamed, because I had put my own needs over that of my manager. “It wasn’t planned” I said, and I assured them, “I don’t think I will be gone a full year.” This web of lies I was weaving left me with a pit in my stomach a (the beginning of mom guilt)and made me wonder how many other women feel like they are in this position and is this the reason women still find it hard to get on that first management rung?
It turns out, I was not, in fact, alone. According to the Bright Horizons 2019 Model Family Index, 21% [of women are] worried to tell their boss they are expecting a child which has almost doubled from 2014’s 12%. Given the increased focus on diversity and inclusion why are we seeing such a spike? Even more alarming were the following stats presented in research The Equality and Human Rights Commission asked YouGov to conduct:
A third (36%) of private sector employers agree that it is reasonable to ask women about their plans to have children in the future during recruitment.
Six in 10 employers (59%) agree that a woman should have to disclose whether she is pregnant during the recruitment process.
44% of employers agree that women should work for an organisation for at least a year before deciding to have children.
A third believe that women who become pregnant and new mothers in work are ‘generally less interested in career progression’ when compared to other employees in their company.
Four in 10 (41%) employers agreed that pregnancy in the workplace puts ‘an unnecessary cost burden’ on the workplace.
Whether people like to admit it or not, these age old questions linger in the minds of managers when they are making hiring and promotion decisions: Why isn’t she pregnant yet? Is she pregnant already and not telling anyone?
The Ontario Government and Canadian Human Rights guidelines are clear, however, policies don’t seem to be shifting perceptions in the way they were intended to. Women are still actively being discriminated against due to biology. I witnessed this first hand during a talent conversation when a female candidate was being discussed. Even more disappointing was that it was an an HR professional who commented, “ I wouldn’t move her there right now, as I am sure she will be having children soon”.
Women make up approximately 50% of Canada’s labour force and account for 58% of post-secondary graduates. How do we make access to opportunity equal for half of our candidate pool? Selection and promotion decisions should absolutely be made based on merit, and I am not advocating for promoting undeserving candidates or making decisions to meet a metric. But I think there is an opportunity to be creative, and look at how we work differently, and consider what organizations can offer for their employees. Or, how the government can incentivize businesses to see parental leaves as an opportunity rather than a burden. In the current landscape, companies sadly see parental leaves as an expense and resource burden they need to endure. This burden is exacerbated further when the employee is a key resource or possesses unique skills and experience. Let’s face it, it is expensive to hire and train someone only to turn around and fund a parental leave. Twelve to 18 months is a long time to replace someone. How can we re-imagine parental leave to lessen the impact on both employers and parents? Focused thought and attention is required to not only help women achieve the career equality they are looking for, but also to help employers find and retain the best talent. The Bright Horizon study concludes by warning that, “In 2020, employers that want to recruit and retain top talent have their work cut out for them. Modern working parents are determined to prioritize families."
We’d love your creative ideas on how we can re-imagine parental leave in Canada. How has the new work from home model presented by COVID shifted your perspective on what is possible (more flexible work arrangements, re-considering the standard ‘work day’, gig work, compressed work weeks? Share your thoughts below: