The Maternity (Amendment) Act, passed in the year 2017, places India as the third country in the world after Canada and Norway aimed at providing working mothers with 26-week of paid maternity leave. The Act also mandates that companies should provide onsite child care facilities to women returning to work to help bridge the career gap for them. This Act addresses majority of concerns for working women including the assurance that women who take a break for childbirth can return to their previous roles with the same employment terms.
For women wanting to pursue their career aspirations while at the same time managing their responsibilities at home, this statute came as a welcome relief. Nevertheless, the long-awaited Act which was initially passed in the year 1961 and then amended in 2016, not only came with mixed reactions but also a lot of grey areas that need to be navigated through. Indeed, while the intent is positive, is the actual execution of the Bill that easy?
Like two sides to a coin, the positive support, come with apprehensions that most SMEs and startups face pertaining to the implementation of the law. For small and growing companies, this Act may only look good on paper as it effectively makes hiring of women a very expensive proposition. Given a choice between hiring a man or a woman for a particular role, the tendency to lean towards hiring a male employee in the workforce is far higher. The Act also allows women employees to work from home after the maternity break. This, in turn, would lead to companies discriminating against women and thus tilting the entire gender balance in the organization. There are also views that this policy may work for women in roles where they are part of a team. It may not hold when they hold leadership positions or individual roles in an organization. How then can this mandate be welcomed by smaller companies where cost implications are a very crucial factor in any employee oriented policy?
While there has been skepticism among employers and employees on empowering women employees, but there has also been a tremendously positive response from larger and medium-sized companies and HR Leaders who argue that this mandate will move India towards a gender-balanced workforce and benefit the society by empowering women.
As quoted by Hari T.N, HR- Head, Big Basket, “These extended benefits have provided immense support to a woman at a crucial stage in her life and by doing so, has allowed her to return to work a little more easily than in the past. These additional costs have zero influence on our decision to hire women. The intangible benefits of having a gender-balanced workforce outweigh the costs many times over”. In an era where a talented workforce is always welcome, and the key to a booming economy is gender balance, surveys claim that including more women in the workforce is the key to economic growth.
According to Maersk Global Services Centre’s Senior Director (HR) Pratap, “a mindset and a cultural ecosystem need to be built around inclusion and not merely diversity.” There are now many organizations that are reinforcing the Act with their internal programs to encourage the woman to come back to work. Initiatives that help nurture a woman’s professional development while she is on maternity leave, or right after she rejoins work, go a long way in creating a supportive and balanced work environment for the new mother. A range of companies is also adopting these along with other initiatives like mentorship programs that make the transition of women back to work easier. And yes, they all go a long way in engaging the employee and retaining and attracting the best of talent!
To make this Act embraced by everyone in equal measure, the law should extend to fathers as well and its current silence on paternity leave is questionable. It further reinforces the age-old social norm that childcare is exclusively the mother’s responsibility. The fact that only maternity leave has statutory backing and paternity leave doesn’t, threatens gender diversity and equality at workplaces as employers may prefer to hire more men over women.
With every statute that is passed, there are always teething issues. What needs to be ensured, therefore, is to make the transition of the amendments smooth and stress-free for both employers as well as employees. What the government needs to realize is that childcare should not be gender biased and should take into account the joint role that both fathers and mothers play in the upbringing and protecting a child in today’s time.
Only then can we call the Maternity Act balanced and holistic!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of People Matters.