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Is maternity leave a career-killer?

Shawna Ohm

Lyndsay Kirkham is a writer, a coder, and yes, a feminist. While at lunch with her son in Toronto, she says she overheard a bunch of IBM executives discussing how they wouldn’t hire young women. Why? Young women would inevitably need to take time off for maternity leave.

Kirkham live-tweeted the conversation, posting, among other things, that: “Apparently IBM doesn’t like hiring young women because they are ‘just going to get themselves pregnant again and again and again.’”

She also says the men were taking bets over which women in their office would get pregnant next.

The Internet responded to her posts en masse. Articles popped up all over the web – including on the Huffington Post and feminist blog Jezebel. Kirkham even saw her Twitter photo blown up behind the women of “The View.”

Kirkham said the executives didn’t appear to have a frat boy mentality, or even seem outwardly hostile toward women. “[It was] just very matter of fact, ‘This is what we’re doing with our new hires.’”

Related: Radical change to video games to target women

According to U.S. government data published in 2011, about two thirds of women were working during their last pregnancy and 70% of those women took maternity leave. In Canada, that number is higher – about 90%.

But here’s the crux – in Canada, it’s not just maternity leave. The country has a parental leave program by which fathers can also take significant work leave – up to about 9 months – following child birth. Which is why Kirkham doesn’t understand the reluctance to hire young women, when men are at equally high risk of becoming parents.

Kirkham also points out that a growing number of women are choosing not to have children.

Yahoo Finance reached out to IBM. The company said: “The views expressed in this reported conversation have nothing to do with how we operate our business in Canada or anywhere else. IBM does not tolerate discrimination of any kind."

IBM is one of the few tech companies with a female CEO – Ginni Rometty. But Kirkham says that’s beside the point.

“If we want to change this it’s not about making a policy change or having a code of conduct or even having a female CEO,” said Kirkham. “It’s really about changing the culture in tech.”

A number of tech companies have released diversity stats this summer, showing a disproportionate number of men in the work place.

30% of Apple's employees are women, according to statistics released by the company Tuesday. 

Related: Apple’s Tim Cook ‘not satisfied’ with workforce diversity

The ratio is the same at Google, with 70% male employees. At Yahoo, men make up 62% of the work force. At Facebook, it's 69%. Compare that to the workforce overall in the U.S. -- which is roughly equal (53% men, 47% women) – and the discrepancy is clear.

For Kirkham, change starts with the companies. That means not putting women on the “mommy track” and accommodating the realities of parents of both genders.

“Whether it’s around policy or just access to childcare I really think it sits in the lap of these corporations,” she said.

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