A section of corporate India is consciously choosing gender-sensitive policies such as flexible hours and crèche services for working mothers. But, there are also companies where women still have to face discrimination and harassment when they announce that they are pregnant.
An advertising agency in Mumbai was served a legal notice in January for allegedly denying maternity leave to an employee and firing her instead.
The notice was sent on January 27, less than two months after Aarti Khatri Ningoo, a client servicing executive, was asked to leave her job at Eggfirst Advertising, a Goregaon-based company.
Ningoo was five months pregnant at that time and, she says, her maternity leave application had been ignored by the company heads since October. The company says Ningoo was asked to leave because of “performance deficiency” and “internal badmouthing.” She has now taken her case to the labour court in Mumbai.
Being fired from a job on account of pregnancy is illegal under the Maternity Benefit Act. But it is more common than we realise and is symptomatic of a more pervasive discrimination against working mothers in Indian organisations.
A common phenomenon
Indian companies are notorious for asking female job candidates intrusive questions about their marital status and maternity plans —questions that are almost never asked of prospective male employees. When women employees get pregnant or return from maternity leave, many of them experience a different set of problems.
“It is quite common for companies to deny promotions to women who have been on maternity leave,” said A Rabindranath, a human resources consultant based in Delhi. Since promotions are largely performance-based and not tenure-based, a woman’s maternity leave often gets recorded as a time of average or no performance.
“It could be that a company is really not able to afford substitutes during an employee’s leave,” Rabindranath said. “But it also happens when companies are completely insensitive to the needs of the employee.”
Such insensitivity often comes in the form of indirect pressure and changes in the attitude of the employer both before and after the maternity leave.
“Many companies assume that a working mother is not a long-term asset—that they are not likely to stick around even after returning from maternity leave,” said Persis Sidhwa, a lawyer at Majlis, a non-profit organisation in Mumbai, which works for women’s rights.
Most importantly, Sidhwa points out, both private and public sectors often do not provide women any incentives to continue working at an organisation after having a baby. “Most companies do not provide crèches or flexible hours, forcing women to choose between work and the home,” she said.
Scroll spoke to two working mothers, and their professional experiences align with what both Sidhwa and Rabindranath said.
‘Why don’t you go on a break?’
In the case of Aarti Ningoo, getting fired from her job “without an explanation” came as a shock during her fifth month of pregnancy.
Ningoo joined Eggfirst, an advertising agency, as a digital sales manager in June 2013 and was later moved to the client servicing department, where she was promoted in April 2014. “Everything went well till I told the company’s vice president that I had conceived, in July 2014,” she said.
“In October, the vice president told me, ‘Why don’t you go on a break and resume after your delivery? You look dull,’” said Ningoo.
In keeping with the company policy of applying for maternity leave well in advance, Ningoo put in an application at the end of October. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 allows working women in India up to three months of maternity leave.
Ningoo, however, received no response to her email despite several reminders. In November, she confronted a company director. “I told him I sensed he was conspiring about my maternity leave, but he obviously denied it,” she said. At the end of the month, Ningoo found that Rs 10,000 had been cut from her salary.
On December 9, Ningoo claims she was verbally asked to part ways with the company. “The only reason given for this verbal termination was underperformance,” said Ningoo.
Eggfirst did not respond to Scroll.in’s queries about why Ningoo’s maternity leave application was ignored. The company admitted, however, that she had been fired. “Aarti [Ningoo] has been…unable to reconcile with her performance deficiency and deliberate malignant acts,” said Devendra Shrimal, a spokesperson for Eggfirst.
‘They called my husband for a chat’
In 2011, Kolkata resident Puja Seth (name changed on request) was compelled to leave her job as a subeditor with a national newspaper after she got pregnant. Seth’s health was poor in her first trimester, and her bosses initially reduced her work hours.
In the third month of pregnancy, however, Seth was called in for a meeting with her seniors. “They asked me how I could keep working like this, insinuating that I should quit the job,” she said. “I told them I would figure out how to manage work, because journalism doesn’t pay very much and my family really needed two incomes at that time.”
Similar meetings continued over the next few weeks, where she was pulled up for leaving earlier than her colleagues and was repeatedly asked to call in her husband for a chat. “When my husband finally met them, they had the audacity to ask him how a man could let his pregnant wife work,” said Seth.
Half-way through her pregnancy, the company asked Seth to resign citing pressure from the company’s head office in Delhi.
“My health had deteriorated further because of all the stress, so I told them I would go on indefinite leave – but I refused to resign,” she said, choosing not to return to the company after her son was born. “I was paid for three months of maternity leave, but the mental trauma they put me through cannot be excused,” added Seth, who now works with a company that provides a crèche for employees’ children.