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Building bridges

By Rebecca Cohoe

With low fertility rates and an aging workforce putting stress on this province’s labour force, stronger parental leave policies in Newfoundland and Labrador wouldn’t just be good for families — they’d be good for the provincial economy.

In her report Transitioning Into and Out of Parental Leave: Recommendations for Three Stages of Support, Department of Sociology master’s student Jenna Hawkins suggests policy changes that would increase support for working mothers, and their families, before, during and after the birth of a child.

“My interest in this area came from a sociology course I took as part of my undergraduate degree,” said Ms. Hawkins. “We passed by the topic relatively quickly, but it really struck me, and I knew I wanted to do more work on mothers in the workplace.”

The importance of making sure that women can transition in and out of the workforce with ease has also been identified as an important one by business, labour and government in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Ms. Hawkins’ work was funded through the Strategic Partnership’s Student Research Fund, a Harris Centre-managed fund that provides support for Memorial undergraduate and graduate students to undertake research on public policy issues related to the province’s social and economic development. The fund is a partnership of business, labour and government dedicated to improving the quality of life of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador through sustainable, balanced economic and social development.

“In the province, and in Canada as a whole, we’re seeing a demographic shift happening. We’re expecting to see a gap between the people we need for the workforce and the number of available workers. More and more, women are going to be called on to fill those roles,” said Ms. Hawkins. “We’re going to need to offer better support to allow them to do that.

“Among other things, our society is built on work and reproduction,” she continued. “If women decide, 'I’m not going to struggle through balancing a job and a family. I’m just going to work,' then you’ve got the problem of a depleting population. Conversely, if a woman decides to leave the workforce, choosing children over a job, the labour market challenge gets worse.

“Of course, in reality, lots of women do both and find their own ways to combine work and family life. My goal in this report is to suggest supports that make that easier.”

Along with assessing the current state of working mothers in Newfoundland and Labrador, and suggesting improvements, Ms. Hawkins’ report also shares best-case-scenario practices from around the world.

“The Nordic countries have great supports for working mothers. They’ve got childcare, a lengthy parental leave and a much more generous monetary support system to help women have children while working,” said Ms. Hawkins.
Closer to home, the Quebec model is something to work towards.

“Quebec's new parental leave support program takes important steps forward that the rest of Canada has not. They’ve moved ahead with more generous wage-replacement rates, and a paternity leave as well,” Ms. Hawkins said.
Interestingly, although her report is focused primarily on policies that would directly impact mothers, Ms. Hawkins believes that father-friendly policies would also be a positive step forward.

“While my research suggests that mothers bear the brunt of the 'working parent challenges,' fathers need to be supported too, I am particularly excited about the possibility of extending paternity leave to fathers. It’s an excellent way to encourage fathers, and to support working families,” concluded Ms. Hawkins.

The Harris Centre is now accepting applications for the Strategic Partnership Student Research Fund. For more information, please visit www.mun.ca/harriscentre. There you will also find Jenna Hawkins’ report.

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