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N.B. Mom’s New Business Tackles A Big Problem with Maternity Leave

Shauna Cole and her two children. (Image: Submitted)

SAINT JOHN – While the law protects a woman’s job while on maternity leave, it doesn’t protect her career, says Saint John consultant Shauna Cole, but she’s looking to change that with her new business.

This fall she’ll introduce the Mat Leave Career Lab, a one-day boutique-style retreat that will aim to give women the skills they need to work with their employers to have a smooth transition not only back into their jobs, but their careers after maternity leave.

The idea for the program stemmed from Cole’s personal experience, back when she was working in the corporate world around five years ago. She says though she still had her job, the job was different than the one she left.

“One, I think, was my role was quite different. My team was quite different. The company was quite different. Everything had changed and because I had disconnected for such a lengthy period of time, my transition back was very difficult both personally and professionally,” says Cole.

Like many young professionals, she was working on a specific career path. Though she did have a job to come back to after maternity leave, it wasn’t the job she left.

“I think for me as a professional woman that was working towards a specific career path and had specialized my education and all my steps to get to a certain destination, then you leave for the 12 months,” says Cole. “Yes, you are guaranteed the job, but that job wasn’t necessarily aligned with my longer-term career.”

Cole tried to wait it out, thinking that she had been out 12 months and was perhaps just having trouble transitioning back. But after several months, she knew it wasn’t working.

“Honestly, I didn’t have any work to do. It was like my job has been absorbed,” she says. “I’m sitting there feeling useless, so it’s just set up to really take a toll on confidence, self-worth and all that deep stuff that’s an outcome of not feeling as valued in terms of your career.”

Experiences like Cole’s are not unique. According to research from Ceric Canada, 85 per cent of employers feel that maternity leave has either a neutral or positive impact on the career development of their employees.

Meanwhile, less than four per cent of mothers feel maternity leave has a positive impact on their careers. Thirty-six per cent of new mothers feel that taking maternity leave negatively impacts their opportunity for promotions, career development and career progression.

“What generally happens in the corporate environment is you drop off the radar and people feel forgotten about, waiting until a month out from their return to figure out what their job is,” says Cole.

“You feel forgotten about because the employers I’ve seen don’t have great practices when it comes reintegrating to the workforce. I think that process should be starting on the exit. We need to have formal exit processes for women going out on maternity leave and formal re-onboarding processes.”

This is something she plans to help women do with the Mat Leave Career Lab. Since most employers don’t even know there is a problem, Cole plans to give women the tools and plan they need to start the conversation with their employer.

“The gist of the day will be to equip women to go through a framework to legitimately take control of their careers through the transition out to and returning from maternity leave by giving them tools and working through that specific framework to more effectively manage that,” says Cole.

“Don’t wait for them to do it, let’s do it ourselves … I want to do this comprehensive communication so you know what you should tell your manager, when you should have the conversation, how to push your manager to get the information you need to have a successful re-onboarding. Why don’t you make the suggestion of a re-onboarding plan to your employer? If they’re not going to do it, then you can take the ownership of it.”

The first Mat Leave Career Lab event takes place on September 14. Looking ahead, Cole plans to expand the curriculum to deal with emerging issues around paternity leave as well as offering programming directly to employers to help them improve their procedures.

She says that for businesses, it’s not just about doing a good thing. Like terminating an employee, parental leaves have their own set of legalities and impacts on the “bottom line.”

“There are huge benefits to employers taking something like this on. Employers need to be aware that there are legal risks associated with the maternity leave transitions and some people do get themselves in trouble,” says Cole.

“Let me help you mitigate your legal risk, just like you do with an outplacement or a termination by having an agency come in and help someone with that transition. Let me equip your leaders with the knowledge and a framework to work through the maternity leave transition.”

Though her practice is still in its early days, Cole hopes her new business will help fill a gap for parents that has long been ignored.

“In my mind, I always think, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if you could grow your baby and your career together and have that whole notion of having it all at the same time?’ I don’t think these things have to be mutually exclusive if we put the right amount of planning into it,” she says. “I think any parental leave transition is a huge leadership development opportunity that organizations are missing the mark on.”