Maneka Gandhi is kind but 26-week maternity leave is not for the Chanda Kochhars
While it is commendable that companies are increasing maternity benefits to retain women employees; enabling them to return to the workforce is also important.
The regrets often expressed by successful women like Naina Lal Kidwai and Indra Nooyi among other strong women personalities heading organisations is that they have less time to spend with their children and families. Nooyi, CEO, Pepsico said in an interview how she was not sure her daughters would say she was a good mom, simply because work took precedence most of the time. Kidwai, chairperson, HSBC India, in an interview to Firstpost spoke about the regrets she had of not spending enough time with her daughter.
These women worked in a time when maternity leaves were a mandatory three-month period. Some like Charulata Ravi Kumar, CEO, Razorfish - a digital agency, went back to work after 20 days of giving birth to her son a decade ago. She says that she made the decision because she was determined not to let anything compromise her work or her new-born son. Kumar went to work with baby and her maid in tow every day. "I was lucky that in my previous job in an advertising agency, where I was heading the Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata offices, the organisation provided me room for my baby and the maid. I took them with me even when I had to travel for office work."
Extended maternity leave
The scenario has changed with Maneka Gandhi, Women and Child Development Minsiter’s suggestion for an extended maternity leave from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks. This has been accepted by the labour ministry and puts India at par with many countries across the globe. Some countries like Britain give a year’s off to parents of new born children.
The new proposal allows working mothers 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. The policy is only applicable to permanent employees.
As per the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, a working woman is entitled for 12 weeks of maternity leave, out of which six weeks are before the expected date of delivery.
Why the amendment?
The change in the maternity leave has come about because of various reasons. There have been various global studies that point out that women put off marriage and delay child-birth, one of the reasons for that being that post-natal leave is only for 12 weeks or three months. Some studies have also been done which show the benefits of extended maternity leave and lower infant mortality rates.
India is at the bottom of the heap among South Asian countries in breastfeeding practices. Around 14.5 million children of the 26 million children born in India every year are deprived of optimal feeding practices during the first year of their life, according to a recent report.
Earlier this month, the labour ministry held a tripartite meeting with trade unions and employers on the draft amendment bill to extend maternity leave benefits to natural, commissioning as well as adopting mothers, according to a PTI report. Besides, there are plans to provide 12 weeks of maternity leave to commissioning mothers -- who use surrogates to bear a child -- as well as for working women adopting a baby.
Career growth concerns
The opinion of India Inc is divided on the policy. Some have hailed it while others have expressed concerns about the feasibility of it. On the face of it, the draft amendment bill will benefit employees who are eligible for it. However, what if the employee going on leave is handling a critical role of strategy, asks Kris Laxmikanth, Founder and Manager, The Head Hunters India, Bengaluru. In the case of high ranking employees whose roles are critical to the organisation's functioning, it would be difficult to get a replacement for a period of just six months. Even if the company gets a replacement from within the organisation, it won't be easy to ask the incumbent to make way for the employee returning after maternity leave.
Laxmikanth says that this new policy is not for the ambitious, career-growth seeking woman who wants to get back to the workplace sooner than the current three month maternity leave period. Recall how Marissa Mayer returned to work after taking two weeks off after having her baby in 2012. "This policy is not for the Chanda Kochchars or Marissa Mayers of the corporate world," reiterates Laxmikanth.
Some HR experts opine that this policy would work for women in mid-management, administrative roles or those who are part of teams. In such roles, the work can be divided among others in the team.
A child requires the parent's attention once it starts walking and talking. "What is Corporate India going to do about that," asks Kumar of Razorfish, adding that most of the time when a parent of a young child needs to take leave owing to illness, it is other women employees besides men who resent these mothers taking leave. "That culture has to change," she says.
Six months leave, too much?
The West which has a longer maternity leave of six to eight months for new mothers and parents cannot be a case study for India, say experts. The West has other concerns that it is trying to ameliorate. For instance, the falling population is a real concern there and one of the ways of bridging the gap is to give women longer maternity leaves as they hope that would work as an incentive to have children. That is not the case in India, point out HR analysts.
The policy of six months of maternity leave is a lot, say some from India Inc. The new rule works in the favour of the employee going on leave but what about fitting back into the work place after this long leave? Chaitrali Singh, Head-HR, ZS Associates - a global consultancy, expresses concern that with technology getting updated at a rapid pace, the woman on maternity leave for six months may find herself redundant in the changed work atmosphere. "To be out of touch with work for six months, cope with changes at the workplace in that long absence and then to expect the employee to function at optimal capacity on her return is unfair on the new mother," she says.
Would a new mother be prepared to work an eight or nine hour schedule in the office after she returns from a maternity leave of six months, ask HR analysts. The work schedule would itself require getting used to, for some women employees. Also, as a mother who has been with the child for six months, a woman employee would prefer to have flexi hours.
The six month leave duration could also ring in alarm bells on hiring women in the work force. "When an organisation decides to hire people and has a choice between male and female candidates, chances are that the former would be preferred because the new policy would mean the woman will take six months of maternity leave," says Laxmikanth of Head Hunters, Bengaluru.
The new policy does not make any mention of women in the unorganized sector. The number of women workers in the rural workforce was 24.8 per cent in 2011-12, down from 31.8 percent in 1972-73. In 2011-2012, women comprised 14.7 percent of all urban workers, a small increase from 13.4 percent in 1972-73, according to Catalyst India WRC, a non-proft organisaton with a mission to expand opportunities for women and business.
"Should not women in the labour force be counted," asks Bino Paul, associate professor, Centre for Human Resources Management and Labour Relations, Tata Institute of Social Studies. He says that for every 1,000 men in domestic household jobs, there are 200,000 women doing that work. This skewed ratio needs to be corrected, he says.
India Inc. reacts
Some organisations in Corporate India, that follow the three month mandatory maternity rule, are doing more than that. They offer new mothers extra leave without pay, while some allow them to adjust their leaves against paid leave. Some organisations also follow a policy of flexi-hours with regard to pregnant women employees and also, new mothers.
Vedanta Resources, a global diversified metals and mining company, provides three month mandatory maternity leave as a policy. However, it also gives new mothers the flexibility to take up additional leave of three months or more. In addition, when the new mothers return from maternity leave, the Group provides flexibility to continue in the same job profile or move into another suitable role to provide flexibility of time and amount of involvement, says Madhu Srivastava, Group Head-Talent Acquisition at Vedanta Resources.
Aegon Life Insurance Company Ltd., has extended the maternity leave to 100 days recently to accommodate the weekend offs that gets counted in the three-month period. Saba Adil, Chief People Officer, said that the eight months period will help for the physical and mental well-being of the mother and child, but feels that organizations will have to keep talent ready that can take place of the new mothers who will go for 8 months leave and may require some more time to get back to full day’s work at the work place.
“We have a policy that allows employees to take a month’s unpaid leave before availing of three months maternity leave,” says Ankita Tandon, Chief Operating Officer, CouponDunia, a five-year old firm. “It isn’t good for a new mother to be out of touch with the work place for a six month long period,” says Tandon. Instead, she suggests that organizations can provide flexi hours, crèche facilities, etc to support the new mother who returns to work.
While it is commendable that companies are increasing maternity benefits to retain women employees; enabling them to return to the workforce is also important. Organisations should implement returnship programmes and performance management systems for women employees which help them return to the workplace smoothly. The sooner they integrate, the sooner they will become productive and let go of maternal guilt, points out Shachi Irde, Executive Director, Catalyst India WRC.
A few organisations in India that offer more than three months maternity leave
Flipkart offers 24 weeks plus four months of flexi-working hours with full pay, and, if needed, one-year career break without pay
Accenture India increased maternity leave benefits to 22 weeks of paid leave (five months) from 12 weeks for its full-time and part-time employees in 2015. Employees can extend their leaves further to nine months without pay
Godrej, HCL Technologies, and Hindustan Unilever (HUL) offer 180 days of maternity leave benefit to all employees. This policy is extended to new recruits as well
SAP Labs India offers 20 weeks of paid maternity leave and also leave for those who go in for adoption
Google gives five months paid maternity leave. Besides, this, expectant mothers are also eligible for bonus and stock. The policy is extended to non-biological parents, same –sex couples, couples who want to adopt and those who opt to be surrogate mothers.
The industries with the highest percentage of women on boards are technology, media and telecommunications in India.