The new (amended) Maternity Benefit act has come into play and it looks promising – provisions that have tried to look at core issues such as extending the length of maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, mandatory presence of crèches on, or close to, the office premises and 12 weeks of leave for mothers who are adopting children below 3 months. Interestingly, there is also a work from home clause that has been included, for women to avail post maternity.
At the surface of it, the law looks promising. The proposed recommendations are in the right direction and the intent seems there too. But, here’s the thing. For such a law to succeed and become part of our corporate set-up, there are two broad things that need to be done.
- We need a strong, non-negotiable and committed focus from the government on the implementation of the law: A law is just a piece of paper or document unless it has practical implications which extend beyond the paperwork.First things first, the government will need to put a system in place – one that evaluates companies on these grounds and ensures compliance (this is going to be a big, big task). There would be a need for carrying out random checks to identify instances of subtle or indirect discrimination due to the new law (and this will be hard to prove). Also, the bigger question is, how would such issues will be dealt with? For instance, if an organization is not able to set up a crèche in-house due to space constraints in an existing office, then how, and to whom, would it explain the steps being taken to locate crèches close to the office location? Or, how would we know if it is negotiating a package and fees for the employees and helping to provide the financial benefit to their women employees? Or, what if a manager does not allow a new mother to access the benefit of work from home, because of an inherent bias, then what mechanisms does the organization have in place to manage such behavior? These are real questions and such situations are bound to arise. How will the government ensure that the provisions are being complied with?
- Targeted sensitization training by organizations: Irrespective of what the law says, the only way to address this at a subliminal level within an organization is to have targeted sensitization training for its managers and leaders. They need to understand the law, its implications and its application. Not only that, they need to be able to identify and accept their own unconscious bias when it comes to their behavior towards pregnant employees or new mothers returning to work. The work towards implementing the law or its provisions can only begin after this has been achieved, because the success of any initiative depends on the receptiveness and sense of accountability of those who are core drivers of the same.
Lack of maternity benefit support has led to escalating issues such as fewer women leaders in most organizations because they are forced to drop out of the workforce and take long gaps, lack of pay parity for men and women, lack of balance when it comes to sharing responsibilities at home and a huge impact on the economic growth of the country due to loss of this large talent pool.
Will the amended law help to resolve the above? That has yet to be seen. Also, there’s the danger of companies hiring fewer women – as a way of getting around the law.
Many layers of change are needed to make a paradigm shift. However, we must appreciate that the thought process behind the new law does seem to be progressive and future-focused. Let’s hope it is implemented well.
By Simran Oberoi