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Working moms want better options, and firms could lose out if they don't shape up

TORONTO - Like many mothers, Sam Kassam-Macfie had a big decision to make after her son was born four years ago: return to her full-time job that offered limited flexibility to care for her child, or stay at home.

She chose a middle route — running her own business — that allowed her to work and spend more time with her son. It counteracted what she describes as a slow pace of change at workplaces to accommodate working mothers.

"When you're in corporate and you say you have children, it's almost like you get that glass ceiling: 'We're not going to promote you; we're not going to allow you to develop because you're not reliable,'" she said.

"More and more moms are just being creative and coming up with their own solutions."

When those solutions include dropping out of the workplace due to a lack of scheduling flexibility, companies not only risk losing valued employees but also turning off prospective millennial-age workers who are increasingly looking for better options to manage their work and family lives.

"If we can't make the workplace more family friendly we push people to have to make choices," said Donna Burnett Vachon of the Conference Board of Canada, noting that women in that situation will often choose their kids over their careers.

"If these women aren't getting (into the positions they should) or are choosing not to, we've lost that potential in the organization to have these senior-level members, but at the same time the possibility of creating that gender diversity."

Women opting out of their chosen careers is an issue that experts worry will bleed into the next generation, as daughters watch their mothers stretch themselves too thin and figure there has to be a better way, whether that means not striving for certain roles, putting off having children or forging their own path.

According to Statistics Canada, the employment rate for women with children under the age of three was 64.4 per cent in 2009, more than double the 27.6 per cent level in 1976. The number of self-employed working women was 11.9 per cent in 2009, up from 8.6 per cent in 1976, and they were more likely than men to work part time.

And while the employment rate among women with children has risen sharply over the past three decades, they are still less likely to be employed than women without children.

As the next generation enters the workforce, flexibility will become even more important because it isn't just millennial women who are looking for work-life balance or work-life integration.

Some companies allow for part-time work or a job-sharing schedule to retain employees, or even offer the option of working unusual hours to accommodate the needs of families. In the U.S., companies like Fidelity Investment are finding new ways to help women return to the workforce after having children. One example is a pilot project that hires women who have been out of the workforce on temporary contracts once they attend a program to refresh their skills.

But Jennifer Berdahl, of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, says the amount of flexibility any job can provide will depend on the industry.

She noted that occupations like the legal profession, which has historically involved extreme work schedules, are losing the most women — and the problem isn't just one of logistics.

"There are very strong moral feelings about our obligation to your employer as well as your obligation to your family, and there's a norm of work devotion prescribed for the ideal worker who is always available to their employer, more now than ever because of technology," Berdahl said.

"Then there's the norm of family devotion, where you're expected to be constantly available to family and always put family first. These norms have mapped on to gender (and) both domains are intensifying."

There may not be an across-the-board solution yet, but Andrea Plotnick of the Hay Group, a global management consulting firm based in Toronto, says even small changes to companies' culture would go a long way toward ensuring working mothers remain in the workforce.

"To think that women are any less ambitious than men is crazy, but I think they are forced to make decisions based on 'there are only so many hours in the day and somebody has to take care of the kids'," said Plotnick.

"If there's somebody within your organization that you think is a shinning star...find a way to support them. Find a way that they can make it work and be flexible as an organization. If it means a slightly different work schedule, so be it."

Turning the focus away from "face time" or hours worked at a desk and toward productivity and the quality of work would allow for options, such as working from home, that would help keep talented employees, reduce the chances of burnout or becoming underemployed, she said.

A sponsor within the organization or a career mentor can also help women take a longer-range perspective, Plotnick added.

Removing barriers to success and encouraging women early on in their careers, as well as looking at unconscious biases about a woman's ability to lead (or work) after having children, would also help boost participation.

Kassam-Macfie said her choice to step away from her career wasn't easy as she forfeited a good income and benefits.

But when a Milton, Ont., branch of Momstown became available, Kassam-Macfie, 43, jumped at the opportunity to run the program, which provides activities and support for mothers and children across Canada through more than 20 franchised chapters.

And while her new life as an entrepreneur isn't always easy, she says that being able to make time for her son makes it worth it — as does the fact that in her new line of work, she isn't looked down upon for being a mom.

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