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Small Business Owners Need To Shift Their Attitude Towards Maternity Leave

My son was born when I had been running my business for almost four years. I was not going to walk away from it so that meant finding a way to navigate my own maternity leave. I had a business partner, which gave me some needed flexibility. The legal time allowance for mat leave was irrelevant given I was the boss; I had to figure out how to make it work.

What my own experience taught me was the value of flexibility. If I hear anyone complain that the one-year maximum for maternity leave permitted in Canada is overly generous, I have to keep myself from attacking. It’s particularly hard to hear a woman say that she doesn’t like hiring women of child-bearing age because “then you have to deal with them having babies.”

Recently, a woman with two school-aged children said this. Sadly, she’s not the only narcissistic ignoramus who thinks that way. The truth is, taking a year maternity leave is terrific for everyone. It’s wonderful for the new mother and baby, of course. But it can also be an easy opportunity for your business to expand its skill pool.

Consider the challenge of accommodating mat leave in positive terms

People who wanted to work with us saw “filling in” for a mat leave as an excellent resume builder. Usually, they had slightly less experience than the person on leave, as most with equal experience won’t make a lateral move for one year, unless they’re out of work and really seeking permanent employment. Then you risk losing them mid-contract if something better comes along. But for someone more junior, filling a mat leave provides new, increased responsibility and exposure. We had terrific interim hires, and broadened our circle of supporters for those who moved on.

Once or twice, a new mom decided not to return. That gave us the opportunity to train and test her replacement for an entire year. By the time we knew the job was open, we knew whether that person was a good fit. How often do you get to audition someone for a year before offering a permanent position?

Allow flexibility that will keep women in the workforce — and help everyone function better

Your business can accommodate more flexibility than you realize. That’s where having a positive attitude starts. Let go of thinking that employees will take advantage of flex options, and you’ll discover just how much flexibility you can build into your business — and how appreciative people will be in turn.

Step one. Ask your employees to tell you what is important to them. They might ask you to put a comfy chair in the washroom so a woman can pump milk comfortably. Or to come in at 10 and leave at 4 for six months, which might enable a woman to return to work sooner or shorten her commute time dramatically. Or, take two hours at lunch so a woman can go home to feed her baby.

Many women on mat leave want to remain involved and engaged with work, and may also need to earn more than employment insurance (EI) pays during their leave. I always encouraged people to take the maximum amount of time off allowed but in the early years of our business, we were too small to top up EI, making it hard for some to afford the time off. Job sharing can be a brilliant solution when the employees propose it. I’ve seen situations in which two women, recognizing their similar situations, set up a job-sharing arrangement that lasted through the births of five children. One had a baby, then the other. It went back and forth for years and worked for everyone — including the business. Though neither earned a full-time salary, they both maintained their experience and currency in the workforce.

View mat leave as an investment in yourself — and your business

My own mat leave was successful for a few reasons. I lived close to work so I could go home at lunchtime. I returned to work three days a week until my son was six months, then four days for the next six months. I could also afford to hire a nanny as I had a partner who worked. My income was modest at the time, and I paid Emily my entire salary, which matched the rate for full-time nannies.  I viewed employing her as an excellent investment in my business and myself. She cared for my son five days a week, which meant that during the one or two days I was home, I could work or take a nap or make dinner — all in a relatively relaxed frame of mind. That helped me perform better as a mom and a business owner. On the days I worked in the office, she brought the baby to me twice a day, allowing me to nurse for 13 months. That was important to me and helped me create balance and feel good about it. When you’re building a business, sometimes that type of investment will help you be successful on both the home and work fronts.

Create family-friendly policies to make a workplace family

Because of my experience and positive attitude towards flex options, women in the office who wanted to have children knew we would be open to their requests for accommodation. Others benefitted as well. We established a policy that gave every employee 40 hours of personal time off a year, no questions asked. Parents could use the time to be with their children for illness, class trips, doctor appointments — without having to dip into vacation time, or worse, lie and call in sick. Other employees could use their personal hours for doctor’s appointments, moving days, or even recharge their batteries by taking in a movie. No one had to ask permission to take the time; everyone used it, as they needed it.

We also instituted a phone call policy that supported parenting. Anyone, at any time, would be interrupted by a call from a child, or the school. No questions were asked except, perhaps, do you need to go home? As a result, parents were more relaxed and the atmosphere was welcoming to kids. They sometimes hung out at the office when they had a stomachache (though nothing more serious). They dropped by after school and curled up somewhere to do homework or nap. They played with the office dogs – and there were a bunch of them, but that’s another column.

The office wasn’t overrun with children. No one complained because we normalized and integrated children and parenting into our workplace practices. For those who didn’t have children, “the kids” simply became part of our culture. We witnessed children being born to co-workers, watched them grow up, invited them to watch the Santa Claus parade as our office had the perfect perch, and eventually even gave some of those kids their first summer jobs. They did good work, too. Real work, and we paid them fairly. We were proud of them. Our company did what we could to make the divide between work and home easier, more fluid. We didn’t just talk about work/life balance; we did what we could to help people achieve it. Now some of our “work kids” have children of their own, and they tell stories of when their moms or dads worked with us, how they loved coming into the office, and how special they felt. That makes an impression on employees, a pretty nice one, I can assure you.

The approach and attitude worked when we had four employees and when we had 40. It allowed us to retain a superbly talented and committed team of professionals. People wanted to work with us for many reasons, but this was among them. No one left because we were unwilling to try to accommodate change, and everyone knew that they might be the beneficiary of that attitude, so everyone worked to help each other. We had full-time and contract workers who moved across the province and across the country and continued their association with us because we were determined to make flexibility successful. Today, electronics makes it easier to do than it was in 1986.

I’m going to continue to focus on flexibility in a future column by shining a light on policies that help keep women in the workforce that also create the best, most productive workplace for everyone. Stay tuned for my thoughts on vacation time (hint, two weeks is not enough), sick leave, caregiver leave, sabbaticals, telecommuting….