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A lost opportunity

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On March 9, a day after International Women’s Day, Parliament cleared the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill. Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya called it his “humble gift to women.”

The Bill extends the period of paid maternity leave for women working in the organised sector to 26 weeks from the current 12. This is applicable to all organisations that employ 10 or more people. Although on the face of it this is a Bill that will benefit women employees, in its implementation it is likely to adversely impact women in the workplace. The gender ratio in corporate India is already highly lopsided. In 2015, women accounted for only 21% of the jobs at the entry level to managerial position, according to a report, From Intention to Impact, published by Catalyst, a non-profit organisation. Even as HR managers strive to increase the gender diversity in their organisations, they are wary about the added costs of hiring young, fertile women. This extension of maternity leave to six months will effectively double these costs and this is likely to result in much fewer women being employed in the corporate sector.

In progressive countries, at least a part of the maternity costs are borne by the government. In India, this is entirely passed on to companies. There is both a direct as well as an indirect cost to long maternity leaves. “We have to also consider that, especially when teams are small, the cost of the absentee employee is borne by other employees, not so much in money, but in terms of working additional hours to make up for the absence,” the HR head of a large organisation said. “Therefore, when we make a hiring decision, we have to think about the impact that having several young women in a team will have on the overall productivity of the team and the hidden costs that the organisation has to bear.”

Also, India’s leaking pipeline – the number of women who quit their jobs between junior and middle levels – is 50%, compared to the average of 29% in Asia. This also implies that the number of women who avail their maternity benefits and yet do not resume their jobs is rather high, adding to the cost concerns of their recruiters.

That said, some of the other provisions in the Bill are encouraging and if implemented well, will help young mothers stay in the workplace. For example, organisations which employ more than 30 women (or 50 people, whichever is less) will now have to provide a crèche. The mother is allowed to visit the crèche four times during the day. Also, mothers who adopt babies are entitled to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

Forgotten fathers

Where the Bill fails utterly though, is in its complete negligence of the roles of fathers. Not only is this a lost opportunity to make some provisions for gender parity, it also works as a double whammy against women, by heaping all parental responsibilities exclusively on her. It further pushes the arguments of both comparative costs of hiring women versus men, as well as ties women down to the primary role of being childcare providers and not professionals in the workplace.


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Printable version | Oct 2, 2022 12:56:40 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-lost-opportunity/article61805543.ece