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Women’s Maternity Bill – Boon or Curse in the Career Ladder?

Recently the Rajya Sabha passed the Women’s Maternity Bill in the Indian Parliament.  The bill mandates that any private establishment with more than 10 employees will need to give six months maternity leave to women and every company with more than 50 employees must establish crèche facilities for children. Companies such as Microsoft and Flipkart have already begun providing such facilities for women to be able to retain talent for the long-term. While the Bill is seen as a welcome move by feminists groups it didn’t bring a smile to all the entrepreneurs including the incoming President of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Executive Vice President of Apollo Hospitals, Ms. Shobhana Kamineni.

The Bill text is of six pages with very little information on why or how should this Act is expected be implemented by companies. The Bill in the current form may appear to be empowering women, and the Government hopes to increase women participation in work force with this Bill, but the reality may be far from it. Women employment is intrinsically linked to multiple gender issues. Following are some scenarios that can occur due to this Bill-

1. Small and Medium scale enterprises typically have 10-50+ employees with each employee doing specific important tasks. If an employee is to remain absent for 26 weeks the work would need to be allotted to someone who already is handling a responsibility. If the woman is in mid-managerial position there is a likelihood that a small enterprise doesn’t employ more than one or two managers of her skill sets. Absence for such a long period of time will impact the productivity of the company since seamless takeover and handover of responsibilities in such a small team doesn’t happen. During performance appraisal, long absence will definitely reflect on the percentage of pay raise. Already, many companies give a minimal 1% pay raise for absence due to pregnancy. In the same firm, if the lady is in the lower pool of talent and if there are larger number of women in the group, multiple people going on such long leaves will again impact the company’s salary budgets. Fresh graduate women may get hired with no pay disparity with their male counterpart but with progress of time pay disparity will develop due to large duration of absences.

2. Long maternity leave and transfer of responsibilities to other team members can create friction between members. Male employees may feel burdened with extra load of work while a female team member is away and still being paid. Gender sensitivity trainings cannot necessarily handle every type of hostility that can occur in such scenarios. Young female employees may be kept away from critical missions to avoid any delays or team friction impacts. There have been cases where women are kept on the bench in IT companies as they approach their maternity leave or are kept on it when they come back from the leave so that termination laws can be applied easily to fire them.

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3. Long maternity leave may be the best answer to hold talent for large IT companies and multi-national companies which spend a good part of their budget on employee training programs. For these companies loss of talent due to personal issues is a high risk. But what happens to companies that require low skill or abundantly available skillsets in large numbers e.g. shopping mall attendants, large chain-store shop floor employees, security guards, customer service representatives, medical nurses and related personnel, data-entry operators? Large numbers of women are employed in these sectors. With such laws being placed, manpower servicing companies will shy away from hiring women as permanent employees. Permanent employees enjoy far better benefits like medical insurance, EPF and gratuity etc which a temporary employee may not get. A good example of companies using such tactics in the West is Walmart which is well known for lower number of permanent employees compared to its temporary hires. Larger number of temporary or part-time hires helps the company keep its employee benefits costs down and thereby lower their sale prices.

The below graph developed by Pew Research Center shows that more parental leave is linked to higher gender pay gap.  European countries with liberal parental leave policies have higher pay gaps between men and women in ages 30 to 34.

Leave-Wage gap link
Leave-Wage gap link

In earlier paragraphs I listed a few economic impacts of the law for companies and thereby salary of the female work force. The economic impact will affect social and cultural aspects of the Indian society too. Well educated women in order to rise in their career paths will tend to push the decision to have children further or have only one child. While one may feel such a forced decision will reduce the population growth in the long run such decisions will impact future generations and their social well-being.  To understand the situation one can look at Japan or some of the other ageing European countries with lower total fertility rates (TFR).  India has been a vibrant country and one main reason for it is the abundance of young generation through every decade.

The answer obviously does not lie in abolishing of maternity leave for women but in adopting a middle path. The decision to have children should not be a burden on the hiring agency or a trade-off for women. Parenting and baby rearing is not necessarily meant only for women. Men should and need to play a significant role in it. For this article, I tried to find out the status of paternity leave given by Multi-National Corporates to small scale companies- the answer varied from 2 days to two weeks post birth of the child. No amount of gender sensitivity workshops can bring in change in men’s perception of the work involved in child rearing unless they are also involved in it personally. It would be prudent to keep maternity leave to the current 14-16 weeks status and increase paternity leave for men. This would reduce the burden of career challenges due to child birth being faced by women and be shared by the working couple. If men are allowed to take a month or two from work when the baby is four months or above it will help the woman get back to work early. Any drawbacks a woman suffers in terms of reduced pay rise due to leave of absence will be reduced or shared equally by both.

Women empowerment does not mean you give more leave so that she can continue to deal with child rearing. It has to mean shared load.  As mentioned by Sheryl Sandeberg in her book “Lean In”,  women aren’t “maternal gatekeepers”. Child rearing has to become a shared responsibility and such laws do not help towards the goal. As the discussion on enhanced paternity leave is gaining prominence, Maneka Gandhi apparently has said such a legislation will have little impact in India, where men do not even avail their existing leave entitlements to share the responsibility of child care. Paternity leave can be considered only if, once the woman goes back to work after her 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child. Let me see how many men do that. I will be happy to give it but for a man, it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything.”

Such denigration of males will not help in development of society on humanist principles. Firstly, it is wrong to casually pass off all males as being uninterested in child rearing. With rising awareness there are many men who would be keenly interested in child rearing activities.  Secondly,  sick leave rules in companies aren’t as straight forward as mentioned by the minister. Few companies will give sick leave if demanded in advance and nor will it be approved for a full one month unless a serious illness is involved. If a company has a defined paternity leave of five days there is every likelihood that the company will deny one month’s sick leave in advance for the new Father.

In the 1965 Daneil Patrick Moynihan published a report titled “ The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”. In this report he argued that the high rate of families headed by single mothers would greatly hinder progress of blacks toward economic and political equality. Based on this conclusion President Lyondon Johnson signed the War on Poverty Act which gave considerable economic package to single mothers.  Since then, the percentage of Black single mothers has gone up from 23% in 1965 to staggering 70% in 2016 while the poverty numbers have not reduced at the same rate.  There has been a significant breakdown in the social structure of the Black community in the past fifty years. While there may be several reasons for this breakdown the key take away for the Indian context is the aspect of effect of a law -that while being well meaning when one tries to alter the social structure with economic gains thrown in as a carrot it can affect the family fabric considerably.

Based on news reports of past weeks it seems Maneka Gandhi’s thought process in tabling the Women’s Maternity Bill has been- women participation in work force is low–> because they have children–> men are lousy selfish fathers–> ergo increase maternity leave. The conclusions are being poorly supported by a study conducted by NCW with very little industry input.

The social and economic structure of every country is different. While European countries and the USA have high percentage of women employment USA does not have strict laws for maternity leave. Most US Universities and private industry do not provide paid maternity leave. India has a large number of small to medium scale industries which employ more than 80 million people and contributes about 8% to GDP. Women are typically employed in the IT, Banking, Retail and Tourism sector in India which contribute about 70% of GDP.  It is essential to have a dialogue with these industries and work towards a favourable solution. A long paid maternity leave will increase the salary budget of a company and the only way for it to recover cost will be through increased sales price. In order to survive any company will want to sell its product at lower costs and can do so only if it reduces its internal costs. The first blow in such scenarios will obviously be women employees who might be potentially requiring paid leaves.

While it is true that “It takes a whole village to raise a child” the current Women’s Maternity Bill attempts to put the onus of social and psychological upbringing on the Mother and the financial responsibility on business enterprises . The decision of a couple to have a child should not necessarily burden the business entity or only the woman. A Legislative Bill should consider the impact of the rules on the complete society during the formation of the Bill even while favouring one section of the society.  It is necessary to learn from the debacles of those countries which already have liberal paid maternity leaves versus those that don’t and develop laws that will not create more problems for the women employee.

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