Dear India Inc., Despite Maternity Benefits, Why Are Women Not Returning To Work?

The guaranteed 26-week maternity leave was welcomed. But in the real world, it has turned out to be a deterrent for women.

Dear India Inc., Despite Maternity Benefits, Why Are Women Not Returning To Work?

Seventy-three percent of Indian women leave their jobs after giving birth, according to a survey in 2018. Among those who do return to work, 48% leave their jobs within four months.

Dear India Inc., this is perhaps the most serious issue facing women in the corporate world. Maternity break often turns into quitting work altogether. 

Let’s break down this massive issue and talk about maternity leave itself.

When we talk about maternity leave, India’s example is often cited. We are considered as a very progressive nation for we have 26 weeks of mandatory maternity leave for our women workforce, both in private and public companies, as mandated by the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act of 2017

The amendment was initially welcomed as a pro-women move. But, in the real world, the maternity benefit law in the country has turned out to be a deterrent for women in corporations.

So, what happened? 

Besides giving an extended 26-week paid leave to pregnant women, who have worked in an establishment for up to 80 days, the act has also introduced an enabling provision relating to "work from home" for women, which may be exercised after the expiry of the leave period. 

Also, it  makes crèche facilities mandatory for every establishment employing 50 or more employees. Women employees would be permitted to visit the crèche four times during the day. 

On paper, this sounds great. But, while the government has brought these amendments to the bill, they have passed on the entire burden of financing these benefits to the companies. 

In 2019, a survey by Teamlease found that nearly 10-18 lakh women lost their jobs once this amendment came into place. Another survey by LocalCircles found that almost 50% of SMEs and start-ups in India reported less female hires over the year. The maternity bill was pointed to as a major reason for this reduction in hiring women employees.

By putting the entire burden of providing paid leave on the companies, critics say, the act is a typical example of putting the cart before the horse. And it gives the companies another reason NOT to hire women. 

Now, let’s come to the second biggest criticism of the act. 

The Maternity Benefit Act assumes that the entire responsibility of parenting, caregiving, and all other responsibilities related to rearing children falls on the mother. So, while the mother gets 26 weeks paid leave, the father gets a minimum of two days and a maximum of two weeks.  

While the mother is forced to put her career on hold to bring up the baby for six months, the father can just get back to work immediately. 

In fact, a survey by JobsForHer found that around 14% of Indian companies—including large enterprises, SMEs and start-ups—don’t have any paternity leave policies at all. The survey also found that just 31% of SMEs and start-ups offer paternity leave, while 57% of large enterprises provide paternity leave of two weeks and more.

When the women do get back to work, they face loss of opportunities, loss of promotions, and lack of support and empathy. Their male counterparts gallop ahead and the women start to see pay gaps that push them so far back, recovery seems insurmountable. 

Men look at maternity leaves as a discriminating benefit and in the same breath, they also judge other men who want to spend time with their children and prioritise their roles as fathers. 

Here begins the real struggle where women start to fall off the labour force. You’ve heard the phrase "working mothers", have you ever referred to men as "working fathers"? 

There are solutions that can be examined. Scandinavian countries have successfully adopted the gender neutral leave model. 

While we are far from achieving that goal, companies need to create funds to support their women and set up insurance policies. The government needs to not just incentivise organisations, but also monetarily support SMEs, instead of putting the entire onus of the financial burden on the employers.  

According to a 2014 ILO report on maternity laws and practices around the world, 58% of all countries provide paid maternity leave funded through social security and a further 16% of countries fund the same through a mixed model, where costs are shared jointly by the individual employer and the State.

There’s also a need to change mindsets at the leadership level. If you look at your women employees as liabilities, this scenario will not change. If you don’t recognise your male employees also as primary parents, this scenario can never change. And if you believe not hiring women is a solution, then this scenario has no hope. 

Watch the full video here:

Mugdha Kalra is a journalist with over 20 years of experience. She is a renowned inclusivity expert and was chosen as one of BBC100Women, 2021.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.