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Celebrating moms: How we can support, empower working mothers to thrive in the workplace

May 12, 2023
By Julie Cafley/Catalyst Canada

Photo: Adobe Stock

At a recent Catalyst event, a speaker told an anecdote of a mom working from home during March school break and juggling work and childcare. During a meeting, the mom came off mute and apologized profusely for the interruption from her school-aged child.

A male colleague on the call responded immediately, “Please stop apologizing and take a bow.”

While we often celebrate all that moms do for their families on Mother’s Day, the focus of the day also provides us with an opportunity to address the motherhood penalty that all working mothers face. On this Mother’s Day, the best gift you can give to mothers everywhere is a better understanding of the motherhood penalty and how you can be an ally to moms and parents in your home, personal life, and workplace.

The ‘motherhood penalty’

Before addressing the motherhood penalty, we must understand what it is and how it impacts all of us. The motherhood penalty explains conscious and unconscious biases and wage, hiring and promotion disadvantages for mothers in the workplace.


And it affects all mothers. For mothers with intersectional identities, the effects are heightened. For those with lower incomes, the results are even higher. In Canada alone, there are 1.84 million single-parent families, with 85 per cent of the lone-parent families parented by women. The impacts of the motherhood penalty are concrete and affect all moms.

A 2022 Catalyst study shows that 76.8 per cent of Canadian moms work in paying jobs. Even in a progressive country like Canada, Moms make up to 20 per cent less after having children. Overall, working moms earn 42 per cent less than working dads. Further studies show that women’s likeliness of being promoted decreases after having a child.

Lack of support when re-entering workforce

Canadian research by Moms at Work shows that moms lack support when re-entering the workforce. Forty per cent of moms consider quitting when they return to work, and 33 per cent say they’ve been discriminated against for becoming and being a mother.

Finally, moms’ salaries are often seen as expendable. The Center for American Progress found that 40 per cent of women are their families’ primary breadwinners. Yet, there is still a deep and unconscious belief that women’s earnings are not central to the family’s financial security.

The motherhood penalty essentially goes undiscussed, partly because there remains a stigma around discussing finances with friends, family, and even financial institutions.

The design solution is to fix systems and structures at home and the office and not try to improve women. Doing this puts the onus where it should be: on organizations, not women.

Give chocolate, but also a much-needed cultural shift

This Mother’s Day, keep spoiling the moms in your life with cards of appreciation and chocolate. However, a more meaningful gift is to broaden the discussion on the motherhood penalty and to play a role in this much-needed cultural shift.

Here are some places to start:

• Close the pay gap for women at work.
• Develop and implement paid parental leave policies. One study found that when employers increase paid leave benefits, there is a 50 per cent decline in attrition of new mothers.
• Offer remote and workplace flexibility.
• Provide childcare support by committing to developing innovative solutions and policies to ensure everyone can participate in the workplace.
• Advocate by promoting a healthy gender partnership at work and encourage shared parental responsibilities.
• Break the stigma regarding money by discussing it with family, friends, at your workplace, and financial advisors.
• Do not make assumptions about what women can or cannot do after having a child. From promotions to work travel and evening events, ask and do not assume.
• Support parents upon returning to work after parental leave.

Encouraging and supporting moms at work is suitable for everyone. This Mother’s Day, let’s work on changing cultural norms. And to moms everywhere, please take a bow.

Julie Cafley, CatalystJulie Cafley, Ph.D., is a mom and the Executive Director of Catalyst Canada, a global non-profit that advances inclusive workplaces.

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