Against the backdrop of Maneka Gandhi, Women and Child Development (WCD) Minister, lobbying for extending maternity leave from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks, Microsoft India has gotten ahead in the race and doubled maternity leave for its employees from three months to six months starting February 1, 2016.
In addition, it will offer new mothers unpaid leave for up to three months and flexible work arrangements up to two years. Furthermore, all male employees and mothers of adopted children will also fall under the ambit of their new policy, being eligible for two and eight calendar weeks of paid leave respectively.
“With extended maternity leave and flexible work hours, we hope the benefits will further improve work-life balance for our women employees, and help them transition back to the workplace at a time and pace that is more conducive to such a major development in their lives,” says Rohit Thakur, Head of Human Resources at Microsoft India, in an interview with YourStory.
“We believe that new mothers need more time and care as they recover from the experience and rigours of pregnancy as well as raising their infant child. We hope to ensure they prioritise their own physical and mental well-being in this period,” he adds.
The History of Maternity leave
The Labour Ministry has decided to amend the 1961 Maternity Benefit Act and increase maternity leave to six-and-a-half months for women in the private sector, following meetings with various stakeholders, and aggressive advocacy from the WCD Ministry led by Maneka Gandhi, who is also pushing for eight months of paid leave at this stage. “We feel that eight months of maternity leave — for women in government as well as private sectors — is required. We will move a note to the Cabinet Secretariat in this regard. Six months of exclusive breastfeeding is very important to combat malnutrition, diarrhoea and other diseases in infants and to lower infant mortality rate,” said a WCD official, in an Indian Express article.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recommends a minimum standard maternity leave of 14 weeks or more, while unofficially advocating for member states to increase it to at least 18 weeks. At 26 weeks, India has joined the top 42 countries where maternity leave exceeds 18 weeks. As per the Central Civil Service (Leave) Rules 1972 amended in 2008, women in government jobs are also entitled to six months of paid leave, an upgrade from the previous four-and-a-half months.
The change in maternity leave has emerged from the published results of various studies, one suggesting that women put off marriage and delay child-birth due to short post-natal leave periods; another proves the direct correlation between extended maternity leave and lower infant mortality rates; a third clocks the lowest optimal suckling rates for Indian mothers, as around 14.5 million children of the 26 million children born in India every year are deprived of optimal breastfeeding practices during the first year of their life.
The work-life balance conundrum
However, we are presented with a rather paradoxical situation. We are attempting to leave behind the era where women were shamed for choosing to be career oriented rather than family oriented, what with industry leaders like Indira Nooyi and Naina Lal Kidwai candidly proclaiming their fears of being deemed bad mothers. And maternity leave is at the heart of that change, ushering in the next wave where women may achieve the best of both worlds. But even as this trend is finding its feet, a new form of shaming is emerging. Tipping the scales completely, women have yet again found themselves at the receiving end of criticism for availing long periods of leave, as critics have raised questions on their priority and level of ambition.
A Firstpost article quotes Kris Laxmikanth, Founder and Manager, The Head Hunters India, saying this new policy is not for the ambitious, career-growth seeking woman who is itching to get back to the workplace sooner than the current three-month maternity leave period. “This policy is not for the Chanda Kochchars or Marissa Mayers of the corporate world,” says Laxmikanth, throwing condescension at women who are only availing what should ideally be considered the fundamental right of working female professionals today. This shows that change is needed not only at the policy level, but also at an ideological level, to get the best out of this pragmatic policy.
“Women in India need longer maternity leave in absence of any support in parenting from men. It should not be seen as a deduction in labour hours but as a long-term investment from the future economic point of view,” says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, according to this Indian Express article.
The ILO is also opposed to upping the ante to eight months, and feels it may affect the employability of women – a statement slammed by Maneka Gandhi as regressive, insensitive and biased. Microsoft has established practices in an effort to combat this bias and sensitise their employee force. “Inclusion is one of our core cultural values and we support our employees experiencing major life events like child birth through our benefits, our policies and our work environment. Specifically, to sensitise employees regarding maternity leave as well as other issues, we have implemented a mandatory training on unconscious bias at Microsoft, and this is available externally to our customers and partners as well. We host an Inclusion Week that encourages and ensures a diverse culture built on mutual trust and respect at the workplace. We’ve also engaged with innovative methods, such as bringing theatre groups to create greater awareness and gender sensitivity,” explains Rohit.
Furthermore, to eliminate the possibility of maternity leave affecting the performance standards of women who have been away and are struggling with their comebacks, returnship programmes also form a crucial part of their new policy. One such programme is Springboard that combines on-boarding, training, and mentoring to help women employees’ transition smoothly back to full-time work, with options like work from home, and part-time work to ease them into the grind again.
How some of the other companies are faring
Flipkart had announced almost seven months ago, that it would offer expectant mothers 24 weeks leave plus four months of flexi-working hours with full pay, amongst other benefits like part coverage of childbirth expenses. Accenture India also increased maternity leave benefits to 22 weeks of paid leave (five months) from 12 weeks for its full-time and part-time employees in 2015. Some other companies to jump on the six-month bandwagon are Godrej, HCL Technologies, and Hindustan Unilever (HUL). SAP Labs India and Google lag behind offering 20 weeks of paid maternity leave, but at the latter, expectant mothers are eligible for bonus and stock. The policy is extended to non-biological parents, same –sex couples, couples who want to adopt, and those who opt to be surrogate mothers.
With Maneka Gandhi batting for social change and the Labour ministry backing it at the policy level, India is definitely in the league of the top countries with the most progressive policies for women professionals. However, policies getting ahead of mindsets can be as futile a thing as mindsets getting ahead of policies, smothering. Change in one must mirror change in another, which, sadly, isn’t true in the Indian context as far as this new policy is concerned. As mentioned, we have swiftly traversed from a culture of shaming women for choosing career over family, to now, criticising their overall commitment for temporarily choosing family over career. Maybe society will never let a woman have it all, no matter how geared up she is to take everything on. To make this untrue, policies must be coupled with active sensitisation and returnship programs to make a workplace truly inclusive.