The Rajya Sabha on Thursday passed the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill, 2016, a key feature of which is the increase in the stipulated maternity leave to 26 weeks from the present 12 weeks. The move was widely cheered, as it was seen as long overdue.
According to research by S.K. Sasikumar, senior fellow at Noida-based VV Giri National Labour Institute, the phenomenon of women dropping out of the workforce is most pronounced in the age group of 25 to 34, which coincides with marriage and childbirth in the lives of most working women.
“If you look at the labour force differentials, there is a 60 percent plus differential between male and female workforce participation in the 25 to 34 age group and this is the age when people get married and have children. This is when women fall out of the market,” Sasikumar says.
“In the 20 to 24 age group, the differential is 48.2 per cent. That means that people are entering, but the exit is happening here. You have 99 per cent of men working between 30 to 34 and only 37 percent of women working.”
It is also expected to feed into India's economic growth story over a period of time.
“According to research, India can add upto $700 billion of additional GDP, if more women join and stay in the work force. With the rise of nuclear families, family and social support for young parents is reducing and women are being forced to give up their career ambitions, which in turn is a loss for the society,” says Sonal Arora, vice president at recruitment and staffing firm TeamLease Services.
While progressive, the legislation can only be considered a start towards creating a more gender-neutral environment in India's workplaces. On this front, the legislation has lagged some sections of industry, which already voluntarily offer six months of paid maternity leave. The list of such companies includes Hindustan Unilever, Flipkart, HCL Technologies, PwC, Accenture, Procter & Gamble (P&G) India and the Tata group.
Some companies also make other adjustments, such as an additional four weeks of leave in case of a medical exigency at PwC and an option to avail an additional six weeks of paid leave at P&G India. Obviously, such practices are limited to the larger companies with a reputation for relative progressiveness.
The challenge will be to enforce the implementation of the legislation by mid-sized and small firms, which together employ a majority of the workforce. These firms are likely to plead inability to meet the maternity benefit norms. There is in fact concern that the legislation may do at these firms the opposite of what is intended, as these companies may now shy away from hiring more women. Or, they could impose curbs on getting married or conceiving babies, as airlines do.
There are other issues at play as well. Both Sasikumar's research and Arora's experience tell us that it is important to have a procedure to actively bring women back to work and acclimatise them to balancing home and work. Arora says that in some organisations, immediately after maternity leave, there is the flexibility to work from home or an option of partial work for two or three days a week is offered. Some have managers periodically scheduling a call to keep the woman employee updated on what is happening so that she is not completely out of step when she comes back.
“There are many organisations which have now aggressively started seeking women who have taken a break. We have started getting requests from customers, especially in the IT industry, who say that, 'okay, I'm looking at hiring women who have taken a break and who are not working anywhere right now, because it's a part of my initiative to have more gender-balanced and empowered workplace',” Arora says, adding, “At the moment, if you look at the male-female ratio, at the entry level, it's at 25 per cent, at mid-level, it is 16 per cent and at the senior level, it is 4 per cent only. So it is about getting more women not just to join the workplace, but also about retaining them.”
If legislators are listening, they could help bring more legislation to create progressive workplaces, apart from their own suggestion to formulate norms for paternity leave.