Proof that India’s new maternity leave law could make it even harder for women to get a job

Where did all the women go?
Where did all the women go?
Image: Reuters/Punit Paranjpe
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India recently cleared a legislation to more than double the provision for maternity leave to 26 weeks, a move that was widely hailed as a big step forward for working women. However, contrary to popular perception, it may only prove right those who believed that it would deter companies from hiring female employees in the first place.

Asked how their hiring approaches would change with the new maternity bill in place, over a quarter of respondents (26%) from a survey of more than 4,300 entrepreneurs, startups, and small & medium enterprises (SMEs) said they would now prefer to hire male employees instead, according to Local Circles, a citizen engagement social network. Another 40% said they will hire female employees but will consider if the cost is worth the candidate.

That doesn’t bode well for India’s woefully low female labour force participation rate. Pregnancy is already considered a career-killer, with many to-be and new mothers facing discrimination at the workplace, being skipped over for promotions or even being fired outright. Some companies even blatantly avoid hiring women who are soon to be married or planning to have kids, asking intrusive questions about their plans for marriage and children at job interviews. And that’s something male job seekers in a similar situation rarely have to contend with.

Behind all this discrimination is the matter of money: A female employee on paid maternity leave for six months is a cost to the company. Besides, under the new law, if a company has 30 women or 50 employees in total, it must also provide creche facilities, either in the office or within a 500-metre radius—an added cost.

That’s why even though 39% of the survey’s respondents welcomed the maternity bill, saying it would lead to a happier workforce, 35% said it would have a negative impact on business, affecting costs and profitability.