Uber India hired a woman in a senior management position while she was in late-stage pregnancy. Another new mother took a break of two years and returned to work on a special programme. These are examples of how India Inc is backing the case hiring expectant mothers and returnships with special maternity and back-to-work benefits.
Megha Yethadka's career at Uber began in a rather unheard of manner. She was hired as Senior Site Lead at Uber’s Hyderabad Tech Centre in 2016 during the third trimester of her pregnancy.
Elsewhere, in New Delhi, Arunima, a 32-year-old woman working for an MNC is happy that she could return to work after taking a two-year break. Her company made her enlist in a special returnship programme, which equipped her with the skills required, and, in six months, she rejoined the workforce, confident to take on a new role.
Megha’s and Arunima’s appointments are welcome moves, while also pleasantly surprising, as they signal the new wave of change sweeping India Inc. The news of their appointments come in the wake of speculation that the recent amendments in the Maternity Act, which increased the maternity leave benefit to six months, had left a drain on company resources, and made it difficult for women to get back to work after the break.
And yet, here was a company hiring a expectant mother just before she was to go on maternity leave. So are women finally getting a better deal at the workforce?
“As a passive candidate, I was very apprehensive about how the hiring decision would change, given circumstances on the personal front. A lot of this apprehension was also because I wasn’t sure myself if I should switch to a new job at this juncture in my life,” says Megha, adding:
"I decided to be upfront about my situation through the recruiting process and was pleasantly surprised by how welcoming everyone at Uber was. After a rigorous process, they believed I was the right fit for this job, and nothing else mattered to them. This is the one thing that helped me make the decision. I recognise that this was also a big decision for Uber, given I was the first hire on the team, tasked to build out the team and programme charter ground up, but also ready to go on a maternity break."
The work-life conundrum
Becoming a mother is a momentous decision in the life of every woman, more so for working women because they carry the before-and-after guilt. “Will I be as efficient as I was before I became pregnant?”, “Am I slowing down? Will I be able to complete the project on time?” and after all the birth pangs, “Will I be able to leave my baby and go to work?”, “Will I be able to do justice to my work and my child?”
It’s a conundrum a lot of women face.
Add to these, the intrusive and insensitive questions some companies ask their women employees at the time of hiring. “Are you planning to start a family anytime soon?” Or even worse, “Will you quit when you have a baby?”
Bias against expectant and new mothers is one of the strongest forms of bias against women.
So, it’s heartening to read a story like Megha’s, where women are being recognised for their merit and being valued accordingly.
Vishpala Reddy, Regional HR Director and Head for Uber - APAC, explains: “We value people for their skills, experience, and the capabilities they bring to the company. An important aspect to also consider is if they are the right fit for our organisation, and will sync with the diverse and open culture that we propagate. We do not discriminate and will hire anybody, provided they fit our criteria.”
Richard Lobo, Head of Human Resources and Executive Vice President at Infosys Limited, concurs. “We make hiring decisions based on a candidate’s qualification and potential, and do not discriminate. Our gender diversity practices seek to promote an inclusive workplace where the potential of women is leveraged and every woman feels valued, heard, and fully involved with the company.”
Urvi Aradhya, Chief Human Resource Officer - K RahejaCorp, believes when a potential candidate has the calibre, there is nothing to prevent an expectant mother from securing a job opportunity. She says,
"However, pregnancy is a sensitive period; self-care and health are of paramount importance. We generally see women seeking jobs after their pregnancy as they want to enjoy the experience of motherhood and give their newborn undivided attention. While K Raheja Corp is open to hiring expectant women, we have not come across any candidates as yet."
Jayanthi Vaidyanathan, Senior HR Director - PayPal India, says,
"We hire people for their skills, experience, competence, and culture fit and those are the only criteria we look at. At PayPal, we believe in fostering an open, diverse, and innovation-driven culture, which is essential for our employees to be at their creative best. As part of this effort, we have even revamped our caregiving policies to fully support all employees, regardless of their situation. So, if pregnant women fit our criteria, they will and are being hired."
Maternity leave and helping mums-to-be
In 2017, when the Maternity Benefit (Amendment Act) came into effect, raising maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, it was aimed at bringing women back into the workforce.
However, a study by TeamLease pointed out that the cost implications of this amendment would have a direct impact on hiring women. In 2018, according to a survey by community social media network LocalCircles, startups and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) remained wary of hiring women due to the added financial burden.
What are companies doing to make pregnancy and getting back to work smooth-sailing for their women employees? A lot, according to the human resources heads of different companies we spoke to.
While the mandatory 26-week paid leave is applicable for women employees, both in government and private sectors, some companies have gone further to make mums-to-be feel more secure at their workplaces. These “extras” are most welcome especially when a woman transitions into the role of a mother.
“Our policies not only offer 26 weeks of maternity leave but also offer an additional three months as an option. Many women employees at the company also chose to avail of our flexible work arrangement policy, which permits them to work fewer hours and/or remotely, based on their choices. Tools like Teams, Kaizala, and Office365 enable employees to be connected to their work when they want to while being present with their family when they need to. In addition, the Microsoft Springboard returnship programme is designed to hire women who have taken a career break because of life events like maternity,” says Ira Gupta, Head of Human Resources - Microsoft India. Besides these, the company also offers adoption and surrogacy leave.
At PayPal, Jayanthi says the company aims to provide end-to-end support. “Apart from the usual benefits, we also offer pick-up and drop from home in the last trimester; a gynaecologist/doctor on campus for regular checkups, diet-specific food, an on-campus nutritionist, a wellness mentor, and on-call counselling support. We also have a nursing room and day care centre.”
At Infosys, a number of programmes help women on a maternity break look at their working options effectively. Richard Lobo of Infosys enumerates a few. “BackLikeABossis a returnee internship programme; it provides a formal pathway to employment for women professionals returning to work after a break. The Mom’s Net, on the other hand, is a programme that effectively integrates new mothers returning to work after maternity leave.
In addition, moms also have access to the Infosys app, Sapphire, which helps them stay connected, relevant and inspired, and Lex, the company’s online training platform that provides anytime, anywhere, any device access to Infosys’ courses.”
Urvi Aradhya, of K Raheja Corp, emphasises the need for maternity support programmes that go beyond what is mandatory under law. “Under Aanchal, our maternity support programme, we offer reduced working hours during the entire tenure of pregnancy and permit women to extend their leave beyond six months in case of medical need for the mother before pregnancy or to take care of the baby after the delivery. We offer a transport allowance of Rs 10,000 per month during the entire tenure so that they can travel in comfort. Our ‘Saheli’ programme is dedicated to expectant mothers where a designated colleague is constantly in touch with the pregnant employee during her time off from work to keep her connected about the workplace and provide any additional support.” During the entire period, Ira says the HR stays connected with the mother-to-be, checking on her well being. Once she resumes work, a creche facility is available on the premises, and regular counselling sessions help them ease into the job.”
What more can be done for expectant mothers?
India is at the third position globally in terms of maternity leave after Canada (50 weeks), and Norway (44 weeks). Recently, taking into consideration the decline in recruitment numbers of women, the government also decided to pay 50 percent of the salary of 14 weeks to women on maternity leave.
While all these are welcome changes, corporate India feels that more could be done. “I think, as a next step, it will be great for the law to mandate a fundamental support system for pregnant women at work, to enable a more conducive and supportive working environment and provide young mothers the flexibility needed to manage home and work,” Jayanthi says.
Richard feels the Act should articulate clearly its intent beyond childcare.
The purpose of the Maternity Amendment Act is to both support the mother and child through the introduction of the six-month paid maternity leave and child care support (really welcome changes for industry and taking India to a unique position globally) at work as well as inspire the woman to pursue her career/vocation/dream. A woman’s participation in the economic growth of the nation, business as well as enhancing her social and economic standing in larger society is fundamental to the growth and development of society.
But despite many corporates taking the lead, almost 50 percent of women drop out mid-career because of varied personal commitments. Reports suggest India could increase its GDP by 16 percent to 60 percent by 2025 if it encouraged more robust participation from women in the workforce.
In the end, it’s not about one Act, many amendments, or a couple of policies that favour women. The need of the hour is a concerted effort and cooperation between the government and organisations to enable more women to join - and remain - in the workforce.