Sushma and Tushar have been living independently in Gurgaon for the past six years. While Tushar is the Vice President Sales at a mega retail chain, Sushma is a Director at a consulting major. The two have always lived a life of equals unaffected by the traditional gender-defined roles. While Tushar is responsible for the morning tea and breakfast, Sushma drops Tushar to work before heading to office herself. With the birth of their newborn girl, while both Tushar and Sushma wanted to share the early parenting responsibilities, corporate structures thought differently. While Sushma was granted 26 weeks maternity leaves as mandated by the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017, Tushar however, was only afforded a 10-day leave from his employers owing to their internal policies. Eventually, they sought help from their parents to support Sushma during the early phase of their parenting journey.
The story above, while hypothetical, represents one that is all too common in urban India today. While the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act 2017, passed last year is a welcome boon for both corporate India and it’s women, it unfortunately also perpetuates an age-old view that places the responsibility of raising a child on women exclusively.
At a time when society is fast moving away from gender-defined roles in child rearing, corporate India needs to follow suit and fast.
Where We Stand
According to a study by McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), if 68 million more women join the service sector labour force over the next 10 years, India’s GDP is poised to be boosted by $700 billion by 2025. The worrying trend, not in line with popular perception, is the declining rate of women participation in the workforce. As per UN Gender Statistics, while the figure stood at 33.7% in 1991, it dropped to a worrying 24% in 2014.
What Women Want
So why are women deciding to leave the workforce in the first place? As per various studies, a majority of women leave the workforce at a stage when they represent mid to senior management positions to give more time to their families and in particular, their newborns.
Corporate India’s structures, unfortunately, are not very conducive to long-term women employment even today. While our own larger mission is to sensitize organizations towards the need for not just gender-neutral but gender-sensitive practices, organizations have to first admit the fact that there is a problem that needs solving and not take standalone programs such as childcare subsidies alone as all-conquering D&I initiatives.
In light of the recent amendments to the Maternity Benefits Act, the legislation’s silence on paternity benefits is not just disappointing, but may well prove to be counter-productive for women employment. With measures such as extended paid maternity leaves, setting up a creche facility, and the added cost of short-term replacements, tax breaks or subsidies from governments would have been expected to enable higher participation. However, with the government not subsidizing the cost of compliance to the new amendments, women by virtue of the Act have now become potentially expensive resources for employers looking at short-term economics.
Another key aspect the Act has ignored is the quality of childcare. Without defining requisite parameters of the service, the industry has seen a mushrooming of small-scale unorganized players who often are found to operate without either the expertise or the necessary legal permissions to run a daycare centre, or in many cases both.
Need Of The Hour – Paternity Over Maternity
Despite its shortcomings, The Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Act 2017 is a positive step aimed at bridging the gaping gender gap in India INC. What corporates however now need to look at, is to build policies not just to comply with the act, but to incorporate a larger cultural shift with gender equality at the helm.
The Nordic countries provide a great example of what can be achieved by making childcare gender-exclusive with paternity benefits reducing the gender gap in the region by over 80% since implementation.
Conclusion - A Time For Change
Besides coping with the financial constraints of compliance to the new amendments, organizations also have to deal with the biases that the society holds. While many large MNCs have had strong policies around making a gender inclusive culture for some years now, even other companies are now catching up and introducing initiatives to build a gender inclusive culture.
As per a recent People Matters and KLAY Schools’ study on the Childcare Facilities by Employers in India, 75 per cent of employers have chosen to strengthen gender diversity as their key management agenda for the new year.
While the intent itself is something that is worth cheering, more support from the government is the impetus needed to supplement the efforts and the intentions of the organizations.