With Jagmeet Singh elected to lead the NDP, Canada made history this month. It's exciting to have the first person of colour leading one of the big three parties. But I was just as intrigued by the historic moment we lost—Niki Ashton nearly became the first pregnant woman to lead a major party.
It wasn't that long ago I was carrying my daughter and working full time. Now, my husband and I are incredibly excited to be expecting our second child, due in April. Like all working mothers, I feel the stress of balancing work and home and the guilt that comes from missing even one moment with my daughter.
As I watched the media react to Ashton's announcement that she was having twins, I saw this tension play out in real time on social media feeds. Canadians questioned Ashton's ability to balance being a mom and a party leader. They wondered how long she would take off for maternity leave, and whether or not she would breast feed during question period.
Apart from pumping breast milk in Parliament (a pretty specific location), these are the doubts and public skepticisms that often plague all pregnant working women in Canada. Social pressures have long demanded that women be perfect caregivers defined by unrealistic expectations. Now that many women are choosing to work and have families, society demands they are perfect employees too, while calling into question their ability to do both and move up the corporate ladder.
Hits against a mom-politician might be more symbolic of this systemic issue. It's hard to imagine the country championing the needs of working women, say, in childcare policies, if an expectant mother's run for office might not be taken seriously.
I am lucky to work in a supportive environment at WE. I benefited from flex time and was able to work from home to spend more time with my family after my daughter was born. In those first few months transitioning back into the office, I often brought my daughter with me.
But many friends—and even more women across the country—aren't so lucky.
For the most part, when expectant moms show up for work, the doubts start almost immediately, even if unspoken. Coworkers worry you'll be tired and won't be able to put in the same hours. They wonder if you'll ask for less responsibility, anticipating maternity leave. They treat you like you're fragile, temporary or expendable.
As if it isn't hard enough for women at work.
Anti-pregnancy bias in the workplace isn't just discrimination; it's counterproductive. A recent study found that a supportive environment for families has a positive impact on employee productivity, turnover and morale.
I am proof.
When I became a mom, I was able to join my team as a consultant on my own time, stay in touch with our organizational priorities, and make time for my daughter while contributing to my organization. Supporting me as a mom empowered me as a worker and a leader.
Companies willing to make creative accommodations can find ways to support expecting and new mothers—while getting the best out of their employees.
First, we need a change in mindset.
Pregnancy is not a weakness or a threat to the bottom line. Reframed, it can be an asset. In fact, companies that prize diversity have a stronger bottom line.
If we want to continue the human race, women are going to get pregnant. Many are choosing to do so later in life as they progress in their career. We've all heard the horror stories of companies less inclined to promote women of a certain age, fearful they'll leave to start a family. This is one response.
The other is to find ways to empower women in all stages of their life and their careers to make valuable contributions.
Motherhood made me a more empathetic leader, a more focused mentor and a more productive team member. If we conquer the pregnancy penalty affecting many Canadian workplaces, more women would be able to say the same.