Last month the new proposed Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, was passed by the Rajya Sabha. It increases the maternity leave for working women from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks and includes “commissioning and adopting mothers”. It also gives nursing mothers the option to work from home.
Whilst this is a welcome move to provide women who are mothers a “support system”, it is only a partial relief measure for the following reasons.
- Longer time away from work, increases the anxiety levels of women. There are re-entry barriers of settling into a work-life routine and adjusting to the needs of the new born child which varies from person to person. Male managers and supervisors need to be sensitive to the needs of new parents at the workplace. Offering flexibility in work timings and assisting in work-life integration is crucial to helping ease re-entry pressures.
- Women often opt out of the workforce because of lack of affordable childcare or support systems. Women are traditionally seen as “home makers” who take time off from work to have children and raise them. They are expected to be the primary caregiver with little or no help from their spouse or partner.
- Due to their perceived role as “primary caregivers”, women are looked at as “secondary workers” who are not fully available to contribute to a formal career. As a result they are often by-passed from being given important assignments, promotions and significant roles in their career.
- Finally, we cannot ignore the gender pay gap. In India, women earn 27% less on an average than their male counterparts. Not surprisingly, women’s participation in the labour force fell from just over 37% in 2004-05 to 29% in 2009-10 despite an increase in women graduating from college. Studies have shown that women choose to drop out of work between Junior to mid-career level and stay at home because of systemic social discrimination issues including the proverbial glass ceiling. They also drop out of work because they end up earning less than their husbands and are not seen as the main income earner.
So how can we change these social norms? It would definitely help if both parents could share the parenting responsibility.
When asked why paternity leave was not included in the bill, the Minister for Women and Child Development said that men would use the time off as a holiday. This statement is wrong because it subscribes to the current gender stereotypical roles of parents and assumes that men cannot be equal caregivers.
Many countries and corporations have instituted paternity leave and encourage men to be equal caregivers. Parents in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of parental leave of which 240 days must be taken by each of the parents and is non-transferable. Whilst Facebook announced last year, that they would cover four months paid parental leave irrespective of gender.
This ensures that the burden of caring for the newborn child and adjusting to the change in family does not rest with only the mother and is a great way to promote gender equality. Surveys showed that Swedish fathers actually took 25% of their leave to be with their children. Whilst this has a positive impact of breaking down stereotypes, it also influences children on how they view the role of parents and improves the bonding with both parents.
The new Maternity Bill and its provisions are a step in the right direction, but we hope the government will continue to refine the bill to include fathers as primary caregivers too.