The recent amendment in the Maternity Benefit Act, which increased the duration of paid leave to new mothers from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, garnered attention worldwide. India now features in the list of countries that offer maximum leaves to working women. Its flaws notwithstanding, the development is likely to benefit nearly two million women in India, and is hailed as a positive step to ensure retention of women employees after they begin a family.
Although several private organisations were offering generous leaves prior to the amendment as well, most recently, Deutsche Bank and Ikea made news about granting six months of childcare leave to fathers as well. Even a fleeting look at the developments on the issue reveals that the last few years have seen major international organisations (Amazon, Netflix, Spotify) updating their parental leave policies, added new features and going as far as to offer ‘unlimited’ leave for a period of one year. Closer inspection shows that organisations have been more generous, aware and exceptionally accommodative on a seemingly contentious issue. Very few countries in the world guarantee satisfactorily long paid parental leaves, and many continue to struggle. For example, there is no country-wide law that ensures paid parental leave, although a few states have one, in the USA, and only 12% of US workers had access to family leave from their employer in 2015.
The traditional notion that extended and long parental leaves are a burden on the organisation and translate into increased cost, is slowly, but surely, giving way to an understanding that also includes the many benefits which come along with it. Employers are realising that generous and flexible parental leave policies not only help bring down employee attrition – meaning better efficiency, decreased talent acquisition and replacement-training costs, but also is a great way to promote an inclusive and encouraging work culture. Studies like these, have helped in bringing about a change in the viewpoint of the organisations, and they are beginning to look at the concept of parental policies outside the ambit of finances, productivity and loss of working hours. The amount of disruption – managerial, financial or otherwise – that would accompany the loss of a talented employee owing to a prohibitive parental leave policy far exceeds the temporary rearrangement that takes place when an employee leaves for a few weeks, or months. Several industry leaders who opted to offer liberal and accommodative parental policies to their employees swear by the many advantages that come along with it.
Along with the immediate measurable benefits – like decreasing attrition – flexible leave policies also help in attracting a wider range of talent to the organisation, promote a healthier work culture and enhance employer image tremendously. The fact that the (future) employer cares about one of the most important moments in your life, and wants you to thoroughly enjoy and experience it, makes the employer instantly more desirable to work with. A study conducted in Japan also suggests a relationship between presence of female managers, and HR presence on management boards to effective utilisation of parental policies. It notes, “... as organizations become more gender-equal through promoting women to managerial positions, leave policies tend to be utilized more. Our findings thus suggest that one mechanism through which gender equality may be enhanced by the presence of female managers is via increased willingness on the part of female employees to utilize parental leave and thereby increase their attachment to the firm. In addition to women’s managerial representation, we suggest that the internal legitimacy of parental leave is critical for women’s use of leave.... Unless the policies are perceived as legitimate within organizations, employees are not likely to perceive organizational accountability for the policies and are less likely to use them. Our findings show that leave policy usage increases in organizations that include HR representatives as board members.”
Recent developments in facilitating greater and more flexible parental leave policies, although lauded, have also been scrutinised for their shortcomings. In the Indian context, they discuss the massive women workforce in the unorganised sector that does not fall into the ambit of the law, and the notable absence of men from incurring the benefits of becoming a parent; while internationally, the focus is more on effective utilisation and inclusion of men. However, there is an undeniable shift in the viewpoint of organisations, and many are actually following up the same by updating their policies and processes.