Maturn Co-Founders Evolve Narrative Around Maternity Leave for Mothers and Organizations Alike

Jason McRobbie

Despite greater strides towards gender equity in policy over the past 60 years, the gender gap remains to the detriment of organizations and female talent alike. Nowhere else is this gap more prevalent across all industries than with maternity leave and the years around it, which represent the number one off-ramp for organizations losing female talent. We sit down to talk about the motherhood penalty and finding ways to stem that loss with Jen Murtagh and Sonja Baikogli Foley, mothers on a mission and co-founders of Maturn—a Vancouver-based social venture committed to supporting mothers and organizations at the intersection of motherhood and leadership.

Key Takeaways:

  • Leaders need to understand that supporting female talent before, during and after maternity leave is key building trust and retaining talent;
  • Despite most organizations believing their maternity leave policies are top notch, survey data consistently reveals otherwise;
  • People leaders and policy builders without the lived experience need to reach out, ask questions and involve those affected;
  • Leaders need to empower a culture that not only offers and espouses but embodies and empowers the uptake of the maternity policies put forth.

As co-founders of MaturnJen Murtagh and Sonja Baikogli Foley are coaching champions of a growing community of individuals and organizations committed to evolving the narrative and policies around maternity leave in Canada.

In a league of their own in Canada, Maturn is focused solely on the crucial transition to and from maternity leave and through the formative years of early motherhood, with the goal of bringing women back to work in a whole new way—while helping organizations get past best intentions and on to policies that work.

“Maternity leave is ripe for disruption. It has been experienced the same way for decades and decades, so it’s time that we start looking at it with a different mindset for ways to innovate and support women in greater ways so that they can feel happy and confident that they can continue to thrive in their role inside and outside of work,” said Jen.

Key to that disruption, however, is engaging employers in the conversation, rarely done in discussions of gender equity, Sonja points out.

“The impact of women taking maternity leave is something we have found is rarely talked about when we talk about gender equity —not just at the Canadian level, but at the global level,” said Sonja. “The truth is that there is what is called the motherhood penalty, which is definitely real and speaks to the penalty that women experience and face as a result of becoming a mother.”

As detailed by The Globe and Mail and elsewhere, those motherhood penalties include pay gaps, hiring biases, competence perceptions, maternity leave penalties and daycare/leadership problems.

A historic burden for working mothers, it is also one directly impacting organizational attempts to improve gender equity and to deepen the dividends of diversity. Despite ongoing efforts to increase the number of women in the tech industry those figures have only grown from 21% to 24% since 2015. One key consideration perennially swept under the carpet is that the primary attrition of female talent is in association with maternity leave and the years around it.

McKinsey has done a lot of work on women exiting the workforce, but it’s really mothers. Organizations are losing more women than men, but the majority of those are mothers because they’re feeling unsupported,” said Jen, noting that most don’t even have a formalized re-onboarding back into their positions.

Get fresh talent, like co-op students, through your doors to help tackle this complex future. Waterloo students bring new skills and perspectives to help you be future-ready. Learn about our future-ready talent framework.

Jen and Sonja point to the importance of those supports.

“A lot of women feel forgotten when they are on maternity leave. They’re feeling overwhelmed and often coming back to completely different organizations, sometimes a different job and a different team. So, we’re also normalizing maternity leave for a lot of women because most women are dealing with these thoughts alone in their heads in isolation. We can start to create negative stories for ourselves,” said Jen. “This is why we’ve taken the approach of more a group coaching model because it brings women together and they actually feel incredibly empowered after they hear the stories of other women.”

Already working with 85+ organizations in Canada and the U.S.—some fully engaged, with others in the pilot testing phase—through an on-demand approach and group coaching model, Jen and Sonja find the hybrid approach to be the linchpin for helping mothers with the challenges around maternity leave, while addressing the larger systemic issues within organizations that give rise to such challenges.

“Maturn really supports organizations and mothers at the intersection of motherhood and leadership. There is a lot that can be done to further support mothers, which advances gender equity. That is what we are championing, both from the mother’s perspective and the organization’s perspective,” said Jen. “What the research shows is a funnel, where women are getting stuck is in the middle and not getting to senior positions. Even though that is changing, it is changing quite glacially. In order to get women through that funnel and into senior leadership, we need to see more normalization of maternity leave. With more conversation around it and more supports, I absolutely believe we’ll see more women moving through the funnel into the senior director roles. But that requires systemic, cultural change.”

Those systemic roots might go back to business bedrock but find poor purchase in today’s more diverse ecosystem of talent.

“What we also know is that to have diverse talent representation only makes businesses better, so we need to provide very targeted supports to what is essentially 50% of the population because in order to reach equality we need equitable solutions,” said Jen, who points to the obvious challenge of doing so in a working world designed by men for men with men in mind. “That means we need to rethink how we have traditionally treated maternity leave and motherhood within our organizations.”

Introducing HUB's 2024 Government Benefits Update! Explore key governmental changes impacting employee benefit plans, retirement, HR policies, and compensation strategies. In a challenging economic climate, HUB collaborates with clients to tailor benefits, ensuring they align with evolving employee needs and expectations.

Sonja questions how businesses could consider doing otherwise, particularly in an era of when EDI is core to attracting and retaining talent.

“If we can’t take care of those who are bringing life into our world, then how do we keep moving in isolation without taking care of that disproportionately impacted group of people? When you take care of your people, they take care of you and that will show success in all aspects of business, including profitability, engagement, loyalty and mental health. It’s a two-way street and that in turn supports our society and our overall wellbeing as a nation, as a country,” said Sonja. “I really think addressing maternity leave advances equity, inclusion and belonging because it’s a significant portion of our population in Canada and worldwide. So if we want to continue to grow our businesses in a thoughtful and holistic way, then we need to be supporting our mothers.”

As for how so many maternity leaves turn into permanent exits, Jen and Sonja have run into the same scenario time and time again.

“I think most companies overestimate how well they are doing in this area. So many organizations have said to us, ‘We’re doing great. We offer this and that and our mothers are so happy,’ but when we ask if they have data on that the answer is, ‘Well, no, but no one is really complaining,’” said Jen, who pointed out their subsequent survey work told a very different story of dissatisfaction with many poised to leave.

In another instance, an organization was losing most of its mothers post-maternity but attributing it to women just wanting to stay home. One survey later, welcome back/touching base letters were being sent to those mothers on maternity leave and within a year the majority of the mothers were coming back to work.

So, what is it that mothers really want to make returning from maternity work for them?

Jen and Sonja will be digging into the details of exactly that at the upcoming Tech Talent North Western Conference in Vancouver on June 6, 2024 with the release of their first annual Maternity Leave Report—a survey of over 1,000 working women across Canada who have taken maternity leave in the past seven years.

One quick reveal ahead of time though—there are no better answer than the ones to be given by the mothers in the midst of your own organization.

That said, as Jen and Sonja have driven home for hundreds of companies, while there is no one size fits all for fixing the maternity leave exit ramp, the smallest of gestures can have the biggest impacts.

There are, however, a few key tips to supporting mothers and shaping maternity leave policies that work.

  1. Develop and create maternity leave policies by mothers for mothers: A lot of the HR people creating these policies don’t have the lived experience of being a mother, which makes it difficult to appreciate and understand the challenges that come with motherhood. It’s really, really important to make sure that the policies you are creating actually reflect the experiences and needs of those who go through that experience.
  2. Don’t assume what works for one, works for all: One of the big things that we hear is that there are a lot of assumptions made on behalf of mothers around what someone thinks they need. Whether or not you have mothers within your HR department, Get curious and ask questions about what mothers really need AND don’t make the assumption that all mothers want and need the same things. Some mothers want to come back into the office five days a week—others do not. It’s really important to get curious with each mother.
  3. Policies need to be normalized to be utilized: Having a policy on the books and one that lives and breathes freely are two different things leading to very different uptakes. Sometimes there are policies in place that are not utilized because there is a company culture that may penalize individuals for using the actual benefits. This is why it’s so important for people leaders to normalize leave policies and encourage employees to utilize those benefits. People leaders have such a huge opportunity to show up to work in a way that makes people feel like they want to be there. You don’t want your employees to feel like, ‘Oh, you NEED the support.’
  4. Ensure your policies provide support for mothers where needed most: These policies can really vary in support from financial means to mental health and childcare support to coaching programs like Maturn offers—these are just a few of the ways organizations can begin to support mothers and make them feel appreciated, engaged and really seen by their employer.

As for the impact that these tips can have, Jen and Sonja have seen the results time and again, but look forward to sharing the deepest data dive yet in their upcoming Maternity Leave Report. It all speaks to the need to continue normalizing the conversation within organizations and amongst mothers alike.

“I think it’s really important that organizations understand the impact of that on maternity leave and their career trajectories. If we don’t pay attention to what the data shows us—and we’re seeing this—then organizations are really going to continue to haemorrhage female talent and have some serious retention problems,” said Jen. “This is about the long-term potential and growth of career trajectories of mothers within organizations. I like to ask, ‘What’s the cost of not investing in them?’”