While we cheer on the latest “6 month maternity leave” bill passed by the Indian Parliament, I am not sure we fully understand the costs of this benefit. Personally, if I were currently employed, I would have never seen the downside of this benefit but the matter of truth is that this so called benefit, only increases the barrier of entry for more women into the workforce. I don’t know about other countries (My job offer in UK still stands despite my “condition”), but 6 months leave is a very costly affair for most Indian companies and hence, companies would be more skeptical of employing women going forward. Obviously, you will never explicitly realise this unless you are a woman of child bearing age (yes, our society decides this age) who is unmarried/ married and childless/ about to have a child, in the job market.
As a social experiment (I’m a huge fan of this!), I applied for a few jobs (before working on my own projects) and even managed to meet with some of these companies to interview, despite being super pregnant. Thanks to my body type, I managed to look non-pregnant without really intending to and hence, had great interviews. In the spirit of full disclosure, when I happened to mention that I am pregnant (towards the end) and that I would need to take things slow for a month or two post delivery, people were visibly/ invisibly uncomfortable depending on how smooth they were as interviewers. Not surprisingly, I would never hear back from these people because rejecting a candidate on the grounds of pregnancy is illegal, even in India. If only a month or two can have such an effect on recruiters, imagine what a mandatory 6 month leave would do to women aspiring to join the workforce!
It’s rather easy for someone like Sheryl Sandberg to ask women world over to Lean in, but the culture in every country is so different that in India, we can hardly have a dialogue about leaning in with people who matter, let alone actually leaning in. If I cannot get a courteous response from a recruiter explaining how he/ she cannot afford my 2-3 months of absence/ inefficiency at this point in their business, how could we possibly believe that the mandatory 6 month maternity leave is going to encourage more women to join the workforce?
Surely, it will monetarily benefit women already in the workforce with 3 additional months of pay while also making their life slightly easier in case they have non-empathising supervisors and hence, encourage them to stay on. However, this does nothing to make one’s transition back into the job any smoother since they end up explicitly losing 6 months on their performance review cycle making them ineligible for a few promotions. Not to mention, the hostility they face at work from either male or non-pregnant female colleagues making them feel guilty about their absence.
Unless men get mandatory 6 months of paternity leave, I don’t know how we can strive for gender equality in the workforce. As a virtue of being a woman, I doubt we could ever make strides at the same pace as our male colleagues with similar professional capabilities and personal aspirations. So, instead of fighting biases against our gender, we’d rather work around it to get what we can. Sigh!