Indian women may get a longer paid maternity leave—but that’s not necessarily a good thing

Finding a balance balance between work and the needs of a new mother.
Finding a balance balance between work and the needs of a new mother.
Image: Reuters/Abhishek Chinnappa
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Women working for private companies in India may soon be eligible for longer maternity leaves.

On Dec. 29, The Indian Express newspaper reported that the government is considering more than doubling the existing provision of 12 weeks of maternity leave to 26 weeks—equal of what government sector jobs currently allow.

“We had written to the labour ministry asking that the maternity leave be extended taking into account the six months of breastfeeding that is required post childbirth,” women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi told the newspaper.

The government will need to amend the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, to allow this extension. A Labour Ministry spokesperson told Quartz that the “amendment is being worked on and will go to the parliament.”

If approved in the parliament, the new policy could be both a blessing and a curse for female employees.

Even though a few large private companies already offer a long leave to new mothers, there are fears that a mandatory six-and-a-half months of maternity leave may deter employers from recruiting women. HCL Technologies, Godrej and Hindustan Unilever currently allow 180 days (over 24 weeks) of maternity leave.

“A blanket maternity leave sounds like a good idea and the move is absolutely well intentional, but it could be slightly detrimental because six months is a long time. In today’s time, business cycles are short and a lot can change at work within a couple of months, so coming back to work after a gap of six months can be hard,” Sairee Chahal, founder of SHEROES, a portal exclusively for women job seekers, told Quartz.

“These are tough times for businesses and paying an unproductive employee for six months may not be practical for a small business or a small school,” Chahal added.

There are, however, several upsides to a longer maternity leave for both women and employers.

To begin with, it might encourage more women to enter—and more importantly, stay—in the labour force. According to data from the National Sample Survey Office (pdf), in 2012, only 23.3% women from the age group of  30-44 years in urban India were a part of the workforce. While, 98.8% of the men in the same age group were working.

“Currently, the biggest reason for the absence of women in top management positions is that they drop out mostly because of family reasons,” Amit Nandkeolyar, assistant professor for organisational behaviour at the Indian School of Business, told Quartz.

“Globally, we have seen that longer maternity leaves have benefited the society, ” he added.

Compared to some of the East European countries, India has a much shorter maternity leave policy—even though there are some countries like the US, which offer any paid paternal leave.

Not enough

Yet, an extended maternity leave by itself may not be enough to keep women in the workforce in India. For that, companies need to come up with programmes that can help women return to work after a break—without feeling alienated.

“While extending maternity benefits is a commendable step to retain women employees, reintegrating them back to the workforce is essential. Companies must ensure that fair performance management systems are in place and do not penalise women for maternity breaks,” Sachi Irde, executive director of Catalyst India Women’s Research Centre, a non-profit told Quartz in an email.

According to research by Catalyst (pdf), around half of working women in India fail to reach roles that are beyond the junior or mid-level, mainly because of responsibilities after marriage and childbirth. In rest of Asia, this number is 29%.

Finding a mid-way

Apart from a longer maternity leave, the government can also encourage corporates to offer employees flexible hours and work-from-home options.

“There should be an attempt to find a balance between work and the needs of a new mother,” Chahal of SHEROES said. “You need to be around a child but you may not be busy with it the entire time.”

Allowance for daycare or a babysitter may also help new mothers, she added.

New technology companies have already integrated flexible work options for mothers into their HR policies.

Some startups have already introduced more progressive policies for new mothers. For example, Flipkart provides female employees 24 weeks of paid leave after childbirth, followed by fourth months of flexible work hours. The Bengaluru-based e-commerce major also offers new mothers a one-year career break without pay.