In August 2016, the Rajya Sabha passed amendments to the Maternity Benefit Act (India), 1961, increasing the period of paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, for two surviving children. The amended law also mandates a crèche for all firms with more than 50 employees.
With this move, the government hopes to increase participation of women in the workforce, a demographic that has dipped from 35% in 2004 to 25% in 2011. The data has puzzled administrators, since access to education has increased for women over the decade. One explanation provided by the International Labor Organization (ILO) points to this increased enrollment in education as a reason for the drop, resulting in the consequent withdrawal of women from agricultural workforce.
In urban India, where education, income and social structures are all more favorable, women are regularly dropping out of the workforce owing to motherhood.
Per this 2015 BBC report, in a survey conducted among 1000 working women in New Delhi, only 18-34% women continued to work after having a child.
Why bother about including women in the workforce?
Before you discard this article as ‘yet another Feminist propaganda’, chew on this data – a competitive gender parity in workforce participation would mean $700 billion of additional GDP for India by 2025, increasing the country’s annual GDP growth by 1.4 percentage points.
So, including half of the country’s population in the workforce is not a dispensable, feel-good exercise. It is a critical, developmental step. The Indian government is keen to push the diversity agenda and ensure more women join and stay put in the workforce.
Ok, so the amendment should help?
Prima facie, the amendment seems to be a favorable one. But, let’s break it down a little further.
Six months is a lifetime in the fast-paced corporate environment.
This means that the extended maternity leave would subliminally discourage hiring managers from selecting potential mothers. For those in the system, a full six months away from the job will impact a variety of career altering variables – appraisals, promotion and potential opportunities.
Data suggests that a large segment of those women who join back after maternity leave, backtrack their progress, choosing less ambitious projects that require minimal contact time at work. This is understandable, since in a dissipating joint-family structure, new mothers do not have the assistance from family that they had a couple of decades back.
While the concept of creches are catching up, many families in India are still reluctant to outsource child rearing to professional organizations. Therefore, it would be interesting to wait and watch whether the mandate of company creche facilities further the cause.
The amendment has no impact on the unorganized sector, leaving out a majority of working women, who have less than progressive employers, with no legal obligation binding them to do the right thing.
What is the solution then?
This does seem like a catch-22 situation, until we see there is another party here, that can share the burden.
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