“You’ve already done what you had to. Folks at home will take care of things now.”
That’s what Mumbai-based journalist Harish C Menon was told by one of India’s biggest media companies when his daughter was born in 2008 in Kerala. With his paternity leave rejected, Menon was only able to see his first child 27 days after her birth.
Such condescension towards new dads is infuriatingly common across Indian corporates and reiterated by India’s laws. While the country recently increased the period of maternity leave to over six months, fathers still get a raw deal.
“The social and familial commitments and hospital and health issues that the man has to attend to aren’t even considered,” Menon, who is now my colleague, said. “Under such circumstances, the less spoken about the emotional aspects and anxieties of a new or expectant father, the better.”
Indeed, India’s minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, came under fire earlier this week for implying that Indian men don’t even deserve paternity leave. “Men in India do not utilise their existing leaves in order to take care of their child,” Gandhi said on Aug. 24, adding that paternity leave would be more like a “holiday” for them.
She may have been alluding to the fact that, like in many other countries, the burden of childcare mostly falls upon women in India. But paternity leave laws could actually do a lot to change that.
Currently, public sector companies in the country are required to provide up to 15 days of paternity leave, but private firms have no such compulsions. The technology sector is ahead of the curve, though.
Flipkart’s leave policy, for instance, offers up to 10 days off to be used either before the birth of the child or within six months after the birth. Infosys, Accenture, Google India, and Microsoft offer a range between five days and two weeks. They all also provide flexible hours and work-from-home options for new dads.
Yet, inevitably it’s still women who end up taking more time out from their careers.
According to a 2015 study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India (Assocham), 25% of urban women across the country quit their jobs after having their first child. That proves costly, affecting salaries and promotions for years to come.
India already has one of the world’s lowest rates of female labour force participation. In 2014, only 27% of women aged over 15 were working in the country, down from 35% in 1990, World Bank data shows.
That’s partly due to the pressures of balancing parental responsibilities with a full-time job. And that’s where paternity leave could come in.
Lessons from abroad
As of 2013, up to 71 countries had laws that provide for paid paternity leave, according to the International Labour Organization (pdf). And the real winners of such legislation are women, studies show.
“The big change we need in this country is the official introduction of shared parental leave, so that the responsibility of men in childcare is also brought into the picture,” Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes.in, a career-networking website for women, told Scroll.in.
When men are encouraged to take time off at the birth of their children, they’re more likely to be involved in the process of raising them, changing diapers and helping with feeding. That takes the pressure off women and boosts gender equality at home in the long-run.
Moreover, paternity leave could also help mothers thrive professionally, helping them return to work sooner and even reducing the gender-based pay gap. In India, where intrusive questions about female employees’ plans for marriage and children are rife, paternity leave could go a long way in curbing the stigmatization of working mothers.
Naturally, more working women implies more productivity. And that could boost India’s economy.