Can India’s new Maternity Benefit Bill get more women to return to work? I am not sure

The government, by passing this Bill, appears to have absolved itself of the responsibility to ensure the right outcomes.
Can India’s new Maternity Benefit Bill get more women to return to work? I am not sure
Can India’s new Maternity Benefit Bill get more women to return to work? I am not sure
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By Archana Venkat

Before you call me a pessimist and an ungrateful woman, let me state that I am proud India has passed this Bill. It is a positive move supporting the value that working women bring to our society. Incidentally, I am also a beneficiary of such a policy that my company implemented for expecting mothers from April 1, this year – much before this Bill was passed. Several people have critiqued this Bill, including my friend Swagata Raha, by pointing out discrepancies in how it views biological children differently from adopted ones; and how it excludes women working in the unorganized sector.

While I am sure the government had its own rationale for passing the Bill, the crux of the matter is that the onus of ensuring women getting back to work still remains with the organizations they work for. Scrutinizing and monitoring progress in this regard is an area the Bill hasn’t touched upon at all. And that is why I remain concerned about the success of this Bill in practice. My reasons are listed below.

1.    Company versus family tussle – Once you are in a relationship, the focus shifts from work to personal life. Throw in a child and the equation wholly shifts in the favor of ‘family first’. This is a reality that companies have to live with. There is no way anyone can give 12-15 hours to work daily and claim to be a ‘family person’ (No matter how much you delude yourself, kids measure your worth by the time you spend with them. Period). Organizations which expect a woman to be available after maternity-leave to resume the working lifestyle she left behind, are naive. A broader approach to quantify work and measure performance is the need of the hour – for both men and women as they progress in personal and professional life. But, it is easier to force women to fit into the old scheme of things and maintain status quo. If they can’t manage, they have the option to quit.

2.    Parenthood, as seen by companies, tends to exclude fathers – “Leave it to the wife,” was a phrase my husband heard so many times after the birth of our first child, that he quit that company and joined another which was more sensitive to the needs of parenthood. Five days of paternity leave (given grudgingly) is no help to form a bond with your child or support your wife, especially if you keep getting calls from the office about logging in at night ‘when everyone is asleep’. Childcare today is no longer the prerogative of the woman alone. My career wouldn’t have gone anywhere if my husband had decided to hold on to his job then and let me run the show at home. I would have at best raised an impatient shrew of a child and served my husband half burnt food in my efforts to ‘manage things’. Women would rather have a partner who can equally contribute to raising a child. (We can buy diapers on our own, thanks to Amazon). I’d rather the husband get a meaningful paternity leave of 3 -6 months so that I know when I resume work, my baby-sitter and child are still being supervised by a parent. Are companies game for this? I don’t think so.

3.    No role models to follow – I often read about rich, privileged women rising up in their careers talking about balancing work and homes and giving advice to the ‘aam aurat’ who may not have such facilities or afford them. What I’d really like to hear about is how women of my generation and experience are managing their careers and homes. Can companies give a chance for such folks to be heard? Can they make these women their poster girls and get them interviews in the media? They may not be picture perfect and speak immaculate English. But at least, they will be real role models.

4.    Lack of family/social structure in urban cities – We no longer enjoy the social structure of extended families. Grandparents today no longer have the intentions or the physical health to care for children. One friend had to blackmail her parents to live with her to care for her child for over 2 years so she could ‘recover’. Of course, changing social and economic exposures means we all like to raise our children differently from how we were raised by our parents. A song and story routine involving birds and animals is no longer effective at meals times. The little ones would rather watch the same thing on an iPad, which even the most tech-savvy of Indian grandparents tend to struggle with.

5.    Lack of ‘good’ extended care facilities – The last time I checked, my neighbourhood daycare cum pre-school had close to 30 kids in the schooling section and 12 kids under 1 year in the day care section. Each category was manned by just 2 adults. While this may still be in line with the government’s Early Childhood Care and Education policy, as a parent, it doesn’t give me comfort. Daycares, as well as those offering babysitting services are trained merely by experience, not through some formal education. I’ve worked with four ‘experienced’ baby-sitters in 5 years and had to train every single one of them in aspects such as identifying signs of distress in a child, how to wash the child’s clothes, how to prepare baby food and how to bathe the child safely. For now, most of us working couples are hoping luck will favour us by ensuring nothing untoward happens with our children.

The government, by passing this Bill, appears to have absolved itself of the responsibility to ensure the right outcomes. There is no clause in the Bill that says organizations need to report their rate of success pertaining to this policy, considering this is expected to positively impact women’s health, education and career related metrics nationally. Under the current circumstances, I feel organizations may grudgingly pay salaries for 6 months and be quick to blame mothers for their individual inability to continue working, should they quit. Unless changes are made in the way business is run to accommodate the lifestyles of parents (fathers included), such policies cannot be effective and help convince women to return to work.

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.

The author is a marketing leader and mother of two who has seen several women leave the organized workforce due to maternity related constraints. The views expressed in this piece are personal and not representative of any organizations or forums she is associated with.

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