Paternity vs. Maternity Leave in the Canadian Business World

By: Emily Coppella, Editor at Ignite Magazine 

It is known that gender roles are shifting in Canada and we are one of the leading countries in gender equality progression. Yet our personal lives are not the only thing following suit; our professional lives are being affected by the changing dynamic of maternity and paternity leave. Over the years, governments and workplaces have established new laws and perspectives on parental leave, so what does this mean for the everyday Canadian?

Parental leave refers to the period of time new parents are entitled to take off from work without pay but with the guarantee that they can return to the same job after. The length (usually 35-42 weeks) and eligibility vary within different provinces under provincial law. Maternity leave specifically refers to unpaid leave for biological mothers and can vary between 15-18 weeks.

So, while parental leave is unpaid, benefits are also administered by provincial employment insurance plans, which pays these parents. Your eligibility depends on the length of employment history or hours worked. In general, you must have worked 600 hours in the previous year before you can apply.

Maternity benefits are offered to biological mothers who can’t work because of pregnancy or a recent birth, and this is paid. 15 weeks is the maximum length available, and can begin as early as 8 weeks before the expected birth date or end as late as 17 weeks after the birth of the child.

Although Canadians may be familiar with maternity leave and its benefits, it’s parental leave that can get a bit confusing. Just as maternity leave can be supplemented, parental leave (which is offered to both parents) can also be supplemented, being called parental  benefits. This is paid leave offered to both parents caring for a newborn (or newly adopted child.)

Combined, the mother and father can take up to a maximum of 35 weeks paid leave. It’s up to the couple to decide who will take time off, and how much. For example, the father can take all 35 weeks if that’s preferred, or perhaps the couple will split the weeks directly in half.

Although maternity leave may seem the most common, paternity leave is gaining momentum in Canada. This is when parental leave is taken by the father, usually with benefits as well. As the Canadian society has embraced a parenting style that rejects traditional gender roles, the lines between father as the breadwinner and mother as the caretaker are becoming blurred.

A 2017 Statistics Canada report states that female participation in the labour market increased from 21.6% to 82% between 1950 and 2015, an upwards trend that is continuing to increase. So, while more women are bringing income into the family, fathers have greater opportunities to dedicate more time to their newborn. Another 2008 report from Statistics Canada has shown that increasing father involvement has a positive effect on the personal, physical, social, cognitive and emotional development of children.

So how exactly are the Canadian provincial governments encouraging fathers to take paternity leave?

Quebec shines as an example due to its introduction of QPIP (Quebec Parental Insurance Plan) that includes leave exclusively for fathers (it’s not just called “parental” leave.) In fact, Donna S. Lero Ph.D at the University of Guelph reported that in 2004, 22% of fathers took up some type of leave compared to 9% in provinces outside of Quebec. In 2012, 78% of all eligible fathers in Quebec took a period of paternity/parental leave.

While Quebec provides a stellar model to encourage paternity leave, the rest of Canada is only slowly following suit. With all provinces except Quebec combined, in 2013, 30.8% of recent fathers claimed or intended to take parental leave. Although not as impressive, a 2003 Statistics Canada report showed that in 2000 only about 3% of husbands claimed or planned to take paid parental benefits; showing a significant social change.

Some challenges still persist such as workplace culture and the gender wage gap. The culture of some workplaces may deter fathers from wanting to take paternity leave. The fact that men typically earn more than women may also discourage fathers from taking time off in order to bring in the most income for their expanding family.

Andrew Bevil is an Ontario father who took paternity leave with his firstborn about two years ago. Bevil sees his workplace as “100% supportive” of working men and women looking to start a family, and found the transition back to work very easy.

“It was amazing to be able to watch our son grow every day and develop. It was very satisfying.”

Although there are definitely obstacles to fathers taking parental leave, Canadian women experience more hardship when starting a family. A Statistics Canada research confirms that there is a negative impact on women’s hourly wages due to motherhood. Canadian mothers with at least one child under the age of 18 earn on average $0.85 for every dollar earned by fathers.

In order to understand the experience of maternity leave, we spoke with Lulu Cohen-Farnell, the founder of Real Food for Real Kids, a Toronto-based healthy food catering company for children, making appearances in child care centres, schools and camps. Their mission is inspiring: to transform children’s eating habits by promoting health-consciousness and sustainability. While men continue to dominate the business-owning sector, Lulu stands out as a woman who cultivated a company, literally, from scratch.

When Cohen-Farnell took a complete maternity leave for one year with her first child, she remembers the time fondly, “as being incredible and so blessed.” Three years after creating her company in 2004, her second child was born, yet she didn’t have any leave due to her responsibilities in her own company. Although this was her second child, she refers to her daughter as her third child, and her company as her second.

“I had to be there for her and also be there for my company… every one of them needed to be nurtured, in different ways.”

Cohen-Farnell returned to work the day her child was born. So how did she balance being a business-owner and mother of two? (Or three?)

“When you’re an entrepreneur, there’s no boundaries between home and work. It’s almost like there’s a competition, you have to provide for all three children. Employees need nurturing too, they need love, they need care, it was triple the work, I had to divide my time in three.”

Cohen-Farnell’s experience speaks to the multiple roles many mothers must play; worker, caregiver, and homemaker.

“Women started working and following their passion and all of a sudden have way more responsibility than they ever had.”

She has also  noticed the increased support of paternity leave in Canada in 2017.

“It’s wonderful that for men the mentality is changing, the ways in which society is changing where certain fathers think also that being with their kid matters as much as career-success. I think it’s a very individual choice.”

Of course, many factors can influence how new parents take advantage of Canada’s parental leave and benefits system. Getting organized if you’re breast-feeding, and possibly hiring a nanny or having a partner with a demanding work schedule can all converge to make very unique choices for families.

To really understand your options, talk to your human resources representative at your workplace, and also consult the Government of Canada website to see what you're eligible for.


Kirthana SasitharanComment