In September, the Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Menaka Gandhi, announced the ministry’s plan to increase the maternity leave for working women to eight months, from the mandated three. A proposal to this effect was forwarded to the Honorable Prime Minister. On the surface, this sounds like a progressive move. But let’s scratch the surface, and ask ourselves – will this be a fruitful move in the long run? Will this have the intended effect? Will it make lives easier for working mothers in India? Let’s analyze, aspect by aspect.
Why should maternity leave rules for working mothers be revised?
India is witnessing a huge transformation, among its female population. Urbanization, social media, feminist NGOs, literacy, technology, and infrastructure – these factors are ensuring that more women are going for higher educational qualifications, and opting for jobs. Jobs are ensuring that women become financially independent, successful and feel more confident about themselves as professionals.
Therefore, when professionally successful women think about motherhood, they should get an environment where they can balance work and family. They need a work culture which identifies with their need to both take care of their babies and move forward in their careers. In a nutshell, a woman should not have to put a hold on her career growth and ambitions just because she decides to start a family at the same time.
Thankfully, companies in India are evolving with the times and offering women employees more incentives to make their lives easier. Companies like Flipkart and Vodafone give female employees paid maternity leave, and flexible working hours for several months after their child is born. Some companies even offer crèche and day-care facilities for children of their women employees.
So on one hand, the situation is getting better for working mothers in India. If the Ministry’s proposal were to become a law, then professional moms might feel better about their lifestyle. But is that all that we know about this issue? Isn’t there another side to the story? Will revised maternity leave rules on paper also translate into real benefits on the ground?
Why the revised rules might not improve the situation
Women have evolved with the times, into tough, intelligent, independent and resourceful beings. So have major corporations who want to give their employee better facilities to help generate more output. But has the Indian society at large evolved with the times? No. Plenty of Indians still continue to nurse an ugly, patriarchal mindset, which says that women should stay within the four walls of a house, and cook and clean and keep the house in order.
Employees ask women employees aged 25 and above, in job interviews, if they have plans to start a family. Such questions, which seem normal to women in India, are illegal in developed nations like the United States. It’s not just sexism which inspires these questions. Companies are reluctant to let their employees go on paid leaves. If the law mandates that new mothers at work be given an eight-month paid leave, companies might be reluctant to hire women planning to start families.
Women who go back to work after having babies also face discrimination at work. Employers hand them less important projects, or pay less for their absence or even pass them over for promotions.
Such factors may cause women to resign from their jobs. The resulting situation may reverse the rising ranks of women in the workforce in India’s industries and commercial establishments.
Also, this may seemingly prove the adage right – women can’t have it all. They are forced to choose work or family.
Solution to such a situation
Before amending the law, the government can consult with industries and corporations first. They can be made aware of their social responsibility towards creating a more supportive environment for women employees. The government can also work with women’s NGOs, like Majlis, to raise the issue of a better work culture for women among employers. Sexist mindsets can be encouraged to go, and progressive thinking, which considers women equal to men, can be ushered in. Courts can offer legal recourse to working mothers who suffer harassment at the workplace, once they return to work after having their child.
Women can be encouraged to balance work and family, and the society at large must also be encouraged to co-operate with these professional mothers. Sharing part of child-rearing responsibilities by husband and parents, the husband sharing fifty percent of the housekeeping burden etc – are moves which can give working moms the required push.
This will make sure that working women don’t have to quit their jobs, or leave their newborns with nannies while they work. While women can conquer the workplace, flexible working hours for new mothers, at least for the first few months, and extended maternity leave, will make sure that they can also give their children the attention they need.
Because, women employees don’t need more perks than male employees do. They just need a little support from the system, and the society at large, to
fulfill their dreams, spend quality time with their children, and give to their lives in meaningful ways.