Mothers who work: It’s time for India Inc to let go off its gender double standard

One of the major reasons that organizations do not pay much heed to continuity plan is their `insensitivity’ towards issues relating to women, opine HR experts.

Sulekha Nair May 18, 2015 12:57:38 IST
Mothers who work: It’s time for India Inc to let go off its gender double standard

When 32-year-old Shakti V working in a managerial position in a leading private bank returned from maternity leave, she decided to take herself off her high pressure job. Shakti took a less hectic job profile at the same designation so that she could manage the baby and work. In the five years that she 'took off’ from working in a lead position, she lost 3 promotions.

A woman’s work life gets hectic post her marriage. It is a balancing game from thereon.

“India Inc needs to be sensitive to working women with responsibilities,” says Rahul Kulkarni, HR head, Accelya Kale Solutions, recognizing the issue.  “We have to admit, no matter how much the denial, that we are a male-dominated society that has seen a slow change in our attitude to women over the years. But we have to be more sensitive towards women employees without making any allowances for merit,” says Kulkarni.

Mothers who work Its time for India Inc to let go off its gender double standard

Representational image. Reuters

There has been a noticeable change though with regard to recruitment, say head hunters. Kris Lakshmikanth, Chairman and MD, Head Hunters India, Bangalore, says that there have been more requests for women candidates in leadership positions from Indian firms. Earlier, only MNCs made this request, he says.

"In spite of that, you will find far less women in their 30s with a young family in leadership positions compared to women in the 40s age group,” says Lakshmikanth.

Childbirth and a young family sometimes affect the growth curve of women employees. Not everyone can be a Marissa Mayer and return to work two weeks after having a child. Some organisations are willing to factor in that reality.

Accenture is a case in point. From 1st May 2015, the company has started giving 22 weeks of paid maternity leaves, up from the 12 weeks earlier, for its full-time and part-time women employees.

The new policy also allows employees who don't have enough accrued vacation time, but want additional time off beyond the maternity leave, to take unpaid leave for another 12 weeks. Employees may also take an additional four weeks of paid leave if there is an illness directly related to the mother’s pregnancy.

Explaining the policy, Accenture’s Human Resource lead for India and global lead for Learning and Talent Development Operations Parag Pande said, “There is an increasing number of families in India where both parents have hectic schedules while simultaneously caring for children and continuing to advance professionally, which can result in some women discontinuing their careers.”

This understanding is an exception though.

On shaky turf

Most times, women who go on maternity leave do not know whether they will return to the same roles in their jobs or will have  to compromise with less challenging ones. This is because organizations do not have a good continuity plan, says Aditya  Narayan  Mishra, President - Staffing, Randstad India, a multi-national HR consulting firm.

One of the major reasons that organizations do not pay much heed to a continuity plan is their 'insensitivity' towards issues relating to women, opine HR experts.

“Performance management processes tend to ignore those who have gone on leave when it is appraisal time. Having a continuity plan is very costly, especially if the job role of the employee is unique,” says Mishra.

Some organisations like Accenture are willing to look beyond the statutory mandatory three months of maternity period and give employees more time off. They are open to reviewing women on maternal leave based on their time spent at work before maternity leave was availed.

At Whirlpool of India, a consumer durables company, women are not excluded during appraisal when on maternity leave, informs Sarthak Raychaudhuri, VP, HR - Asia South. The key to diversity, he says, lies in an inclusive policy.

At Accelya Kale, women are counselled when they get married and return to the workplace. “We have a senior group of men and women who are there to counsel women so that the change in their personal lives does not affect their work. This discussion is open to women whenever they need it. We do not want to lose out on our talented workforce because of lack of sensitivity to the genuine problems that women face in their lives,” says Kulkarni.

"We also have workshops for women to empower them,” says Raychaudhuri.

There has been a trend of allowing flexi hours and remote working by some companies in India Inc. However, it is not a win-win situation with regard to the careers of most women. Fleur Mascrenhas (name changed), who works for a IT solutions firm, says women like her, who opt for them, suffer during appraisals as they are 'not seen in office enough'.

Lakshmikanth says that countries which encourage flexi hours and part-time work like the Netherlands for instance, where 40 percent of women work from home or do part-time jobs, do not paint a happy picture for women employees . “A recent report revealed that there are hardly any woman in leadership positions there across industries,” he says.

Need government policy

Analysts are of the opinion that government intervention would help. Policies work where 'sensitivity and gender equality' remain mere words on paper, they say. "A government policy would make it effective to have more women at the workplace across India Inc. That is the need of the hour,” says Harpreet Grover, Co-Founder and CEO, CoCubes.com. The company uses technology to help corporates assess and hire candidates from campus and beyond.

Who best than the woman concerned who should make the choice with regard to her role, suggest some. "I would recommend that organisations ask women what would they like to do," says Chaitrali Singh, Director, HR, ZS - a global sales and marketing consultancy. " At ZS, women are asked if they want to continue the same projects that they were onto before the break since as consultants the company's business is abroad and time zones differ. "Time zone is central since kids are small, so women tend to take up roles where meetings over calls don’t turn hectic. After the baby has grown up, they have a choice to steer their careers," says Singh.

Singh suggests organisations should talk to women [who take breaks in their careers] and make them aware that  though their current salaries won't be affected, their appraisals would be when the trajectory changes since parity for that function change too.

An interesting aside was provided by an expert at TISS. She wondered if gender parity was a phrase meant for an elitist group of people. "When equality for women at the workplace is discussed, it is often believed that it is applicable for women in white collar jobs," says Vandana P Sonalkar, professor at Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS). "It should not be applicable only to women in the higher income brackets.

Sonalkar believes there exists a bias towards certain jobs and people who do them. "Some, within an organisation itself, believe that certain jobs are undesirable or that some people are fit for the lower ranked jobs they do – and so parity at the workplace with regard to leaves, flexi timings do not apply to women in these jobs. What about including them in the equality plank?” she asks.

"Companies should compulsorily give paternity leaves," suggests an HR analyst. His reasoning is that if gender equality is being endorsed by companies, then it should be mandatory that fathers take leaves and mind the new-born too. " Why should only women's careers and appraisals be affected as they have to take time off to have babies and be with them in the initial stages?"

The only way that organisations can make more men involved with child rearing. especially in the initially stages, is if the government makes it mandatory for organisations to give paternity leaves. "If a woman is pregnant and availing maternity leave, her husband working in another firm or sector should have also declare it and be made to take paternity leave any time during the child's birth, and before it turns one year old," says an analyst.

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