Pregnancy Discrimination: We Can Do Better
Most Canadian employers intend to follow the law with respect to providing employees with leave after giving birth to a child.
However, many employers fall short with respect to the legal obligations they genuinely want to fulfill.
As an employment lawyer and new mom, I hear too many stories from women in my life of pregnancy leaves gone wrong, and I want to help employers do better.
The Legal Framework
For those unfamiliar with the legal framework in Canada, women and trans, non-binary and two-spirit people who give birth are entitled to pregnancy leave under provincial employment standards legislation. Birth parents may also apply for employment insurance maternity benefits in accordance with the federal Employment Insurance Act.
Parents (including fathers and adoptive parents) are similarly entitled to parental leave and parental benefits.
In light of the legal protections new parents enjoy, people of my generation (millennials) are surprised to encounter pregnancy discrimination at work.
Discrimination Can Be Subtle
Where there is obvious discrimination and a significant financial loss, a legal complaint may be an option. But for many, pregnancy discrimination is subtle or causes damage, but not enough damage to justify making a fuss.
During our childbearing years, companies court prospective workers with anti-discrimination policies, salary top-ups, flexible work arrangements before and after pregnancy leave, private nursing rooms and on-site daycare. They promise to support our choice to have a family and remind us we are valued members of the team.
And yet, supporting employees who are pregnant or have recently given birth through friction with their bosses and human resources departments, including companies with seemingly generous policies and programs, is a large part of my legal practice.
We millennial workers are lucky to benefit from legal equality for pregnant workers and birth parents. However, true gender equality in the workplace can only be achieved when employers practice what they preach.
Creating policies to support employees during pregnancy and after giving birth is an excellent first step but executing on those policies is a different feat.
How to Be a Better Employer
To help employers do better, I have compiled these tips based on stories that women have confidentially shared with me about their personal experiences at work:
- Be supportive: It takes courage to tell a boss you are pregnant. When an employee is ready to share the news of their pregnancy, express support. If your initial reaction showed disappointment (perhaps even unintentionally), carve out some time to try again.
- Careful with the jokes: For some, pregnancy is a difficult and emotional time. Be extra cautious with jokes that might be perceived as insensitive.
- Don’t make assumptions: Each worker may have a different expectation for their pregnancy leave. Some workers want to step back and disconnect, while others want to stay connected to colleagues and clients. Some new parents want to get back to work quickly, while others want to stay home for a full 18 months. Don’t assume that what made one employee happy, or what worked for your own family, will work for every new parent. Rather, ask the parent-to-be what they envision for their leave and return to work.
- Involve the parent-to-be in planning: Most career-focused parents want things to run smoothly during their absence. Chances are, they have thought deeply about how to ensure their job responsibilities are well cared for while they are off work. So, ask them. I guarantee this will take pressure off your managers and HR and will provide your parent-to-be with peace of mind that their responsibilities at the office are handled.
- Communicate: This should go without saying, but good communication is crucial, particularly while planning the return to work. Poor communication while an employee is on leave can exacerbate the feeling of disconnection from work and increase anxiety about returning.
- Use gender-neutral language: Not all pregnant people identify as women or moms; trans, non-binary and two-spirit people can and do become birth parents. While our laws still use gendered language like “maternity” and female pronouns for those who take leave from work after carrying a child, we need to adapt our language to be inclusive of all birth parents.
- Consider career advancement: If a more senior role becomes available while the new parent is on leave, or upon their return, give the worker an opportunity to be considered for promotion.
- Give their clients back: If the worker spent years building up a client base, don’t make the new parent start from scratch when they return to work, especially if their compensation is primarily commission-based.
- Give their office back: Don’t stick the returning worker in a corner on their first day back, unless it’s a coveted corner office.
- Remember pre-pregnancy work ethic and dedication: If an employee was valued before their pregnancy, they should be valued, and made to feel valued, upon their return to work. While pregnancy leave can feel long, especially for more than one pregnancy, usually pregnancy(ies) and leave(s) are a short blip in a lengthy career. If you treat a new parent as easily replaceable, they will leave and you will have to replace them. However, if you treat them as a valued member of your team, they will return to being a star performer again before you know it.
We have made significant strides toward gender equality in the last hundred years. However, from the stories I have heard that inspired the above tips, we clearly haven’t reached our goal yet. We can and must do better.
While my generation is surprised that discrimination relating to pregnancy still exists, I’m hopeful that our children will be surprised that pregnancy discrimination ever existed at all.