By: Sutapa Banerjee
India has just passed legislation mandating all public and private sector organisations to increase paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26, ostensibly to encourage women to rejoin work. While many have endorsed this development, including women’s groups, I find little to cheer. The rationale presumably is that allowing women to spend a longer time at home after childbirth, while retaining pay and the security of a job, will lead to larger numbers of women returning to work – a step in the direction of gender equality. This logic however, is deeply flawed.
But first, it would be helpful to understand some facts about the corporate sector workforce in India, where this law will apply. Despite companies flaunting gender neutrality in their policies and practices, women comprise a mere 30% of employees overall. This number it tapers to 16.4% in mid-management levels, falling to 10.6% at senior levels. This is one of the worst “leaking pipelines” in the world. In addition, occupational bias, that is, the concentration of women in certain functions such as administration, HR, and junior customer service roles, predominate. So what is a 26-week maternity leave likely to do in a country where labour force participation by women is one of the lowest in the world, and ranks 124 out of 136 countries in the gender equality index?
India’s new maternity law: a reality check
First, it reinforces the deep-set belief that child care is the sole responsibility of the mother. While 26 weeks of maternity leave makes India’s policies comparable to the top 10% of countries in this area, its differs significantly from its peers in kind. In the top 10%, comprised of mostly Nordic countries, the higher amount of leave is more often than not a combination of maternity and paternity leave in the ‘use it or it lapses’ form where it can’t be transferred. This encourages a more equal division of domestic work and fosters paternal involvement in child care responsibilities. India’s mother-centric policy ignores research showing that shouldering a disproportionately higher share of child care and family responsibilities has been a significant deterrent to women rejoining work.
Second, this benefit is available for women having up to 2 children, making it 52 weeks of paid leave! It’s not hard to imagine how this will pan out at the time of recruitment if the choice is between a male and a female candidate.
Third, the idea that women can and might take up to 52 weeks of leave strengthens the occupational bias with women unlikely to be offered the ‘hard’ line function/P & L driven jobs that lead to business head/CEO roles in future.
A better approach for gender equality in the Indian workforce
Global research has shown that incorporating benefits directed at all employees e.g. making flexible working arrangements a norm for all, work better than measures overtly directed at women. In addition, behavioural design offers a new solution that is being increasingly adopted in public policy and business.
These interventions are based on empirical research that help address different kinds of unconscious biases, including gender bias. One key insight is that while it is difficult and time-consuming to de-bias people’s minds, de-biasing organisations can be surprisingly fast and low cost. For example, changing a social norm is often far easier than changing individual behaviour. There are always a few outliers who, with suitable inducement and support, will break away from an existing norm which then make large numbers fall in line, creating a new norm.
Now imagine if the current legislation was paternity leave on a ‘non-transferable use it or it lapses’ basis. A few successful high-potential men using it could become role models for others and you start to see a new norm emerging in the workplace. This levels the playing field at the time of recruitment, makes it easier for women to return to work due to shared childcare and domestic duties and eases their path up the corporate ladder by not losing out on seniority. Indeed, when asked at a conference what men could do to advance women’s leadership, Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kantor said ‘laundry, food shopping, cooking, cleaning.”
Affirmative action is called for not to favour women, but simply to correct existing biases and level the playing field. Contrary to its intent, India’s new maternity leave law reinforces the norms that keep women from joining, staying and rising in the workforce. A re-look is imperative.
Sutapa Banerjee has spent close to 24 years in the financial services industry across 2 large multinational banks (ANZ Grindlays and ABN AMRO), and Ambit, a boutique Indian Investment bank. She currently serves as an Independent Director on several boards of companies ( JSW Group, IL&FS Group) and non-profits (Oxfam India and Dignity Foundation). She also represents Women’s World Banking on the board of their investee company Ananya Finance as a Nominee Director. Sutapa is an Advanced Leadership Fellow (2015) at Harvard University. Her area of study was on Responsible Investing and Business Practices and the Use of a Gender Lens. She speaks and writes actively in this space. She is also a speaker for the Executive Sessions of Women’s World Banking’s Leadership and Diversity for Innovation Program in Mumbai this September.