Last week saw two contrasting approaches to the issue of maternity benefits in Marissa Mayer and Maneka Gandhi. The Yahoo! CEO has sent out a controversial message with her decision to take just two weeks' leave after she delivers twins, replicating her decision following the birth of her first child three years ago. On the other hand, there is some merit in closely examining the proposal of the Union women and child development minister to extend maternity leave for working women to eight months from three months. In a workplace environment that is still skewed against women, this would certainly help new mothers adjust to the demands of a post-natal work-life balance, which remains a challenge in an evolving society like India.
Ms Gandhi's proposal, which her ministry has put up to the Cabinet Secretariat for discussion, will amend the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, to allow for a month's paid leave before the delivery date and seven months after. The Act at present allows six weeks' paid leave before delivery and six weeks after. The amendment Ms Gandhi proposes is to be seen in the context of the rising incidence of nuclear families, increasing the burden of child-care on mothers in a society in which men largely abdicate such domestic responsibilities. Few young working mothers earn the kind of eye-popping salary Ms Mayer earns to afford top-of-the-line childcare (including a private nursery attached to her office). As importantly, Ms Gandhi's proposed change would help fulfil a critical health objective for women and children. The Indian National Guidelines on Infant and Young Child Feeding suggests exclusive breastfeeding - that is, without any supplemental feeding or even water - for a new-born infant for the first six months of its life, three months more than maternity rules allow. It is true that the current rules stipulate that nursing mothers who return to work should be allowed two breaks in a day to nurse her child till it attains the age of 15 months. But this pre-supposes the availability of creches and day care centres provided by the establishment, facilities that are mostly conspicuous by the absence or so poor in hygiene and care standards that few mothers would opt to keep their children there. It is, however, important to think through this proposal, particularly the terms on which such leave should be granted, so that its acceptability and enforcement do not lead to avoidable consequences hurting job prospects for women.
If accepted, after holding consultations among stakeholders and adopting necessary safeguards, the proposal would also send strong positive signals about this government's outlook on gender diversity. The maternity benefits Act applies to factories, mines and plantations but is generally adopted as a standard for corporate India. True, many companies go well beyond the provisions of this law to provide world-class benefits to their women employees. Multinationals, especially in the IT space, have set higher standards. Their approach is driven by practical considerations of retaining and nurturing talent, which remains the basis of their competitive edge globally. Banks, both private and public sector, have also gone beyond the minimum legal stipulations, as reflected in the large number of women CEOs and executives in their ranks. Some enlightened Indian companies are beginning to catch up, albeit slowly. But India is still many decades away from the kind of enlightened policies that allow for shared leave among new parents or even paternity leave - both of which make it easier for women to return to work. Also, the vast majority of small and medium companies, which account for the bulk of the jobs in the country, are able to dodge these provisions by simply hiring workers on a contract basis. In this context, Ms Gandhi's ministry's request to the labour ministry to extend maternity benefits to women in the unorganised sector - where the vast majority toil - would be worth considering to encourage more women to join the workforce and, most importantly, stay there.