The government’s recommendation to extend maternity leave benefits from 12 to 26 weeks in the private sector will catapult India into a small group of countries that mandate long paid leave for new mothers. This is laudable. Yet, when asked about paternity leave and benefits for new fathers, Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya said, “The bill is about mothers and children. It is not about the men.”
The minister was responding to specifics of the bill but what he said reflects a cultural mindset ingrained in societies around the world: Childcare is a women’s issue. Could we hope to make it gender neutral?
The recent news that actor Tusshar Kapoor became a father via surrogacy is a telling example of a man fulfilling the urge and the need to parent. It was a bold move considering that he comes from an industry that more often than not reinforces gender stereotypes. What if Kapoor was employed in a traditional office? As a new and single parent, he would likely find it difficult to take time off to nurture and bond with his child. The social stigma attached is huge, even in organisations that offer some form of paternal leave benefits.
Developed economies like the US also lag when it comes to men sharing the burden of childcare and housework. It is not that men don’t step up to help. In the instances where they ask for time off to tend to family issues, studies point to long term income hits and lost promotion opportunities. Such men are viewed as lacking in ambition and drive.
The Indian context can’t be compared to that of the West. Here, extended families offer a support structure. But such access doesn’t mean that men carry on as ever before. One transformative step could involve helping around the house more. Various studies, including those by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), demonstrate that Indian men spend less than an hour-a-day on housework, compared to at least four to six hours spent by women. Ariel detergent’s advertisement — showing a father observe his daughter manage both work and home while the son-in-law watches TV — went viral because it brought home this reality.
It is no secret that women feel the pressure to manage home even as they are expected to perform professionally. Traditional values in India run deep. McKinsey Global Institute’s “The Power of Parity” report showed that a majority of men and women agreed with the statement: “If a mother works for pay, her children suffer.” A survey by the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Indian woman network (Maharashtra chapter) found that 37 per cent of women opt out of their job due to maternity/childcare issues. Their re-entry into the workforce was hindered by their maternal obligations. Is it therefore surprising that those mothers who can afford to not work outside home often elect not to? We have one of the lowest rates of female participation in the workforce, ranking 11th from the bottom of 131 countries, according to the International Labour Organisation. At the very least, this statistic could be improved if we stem the leaking pipeline of educated, urban women dropping out due to care obligations.
After all, there is enough evidence to support the positive economic benefits of having more women work. Last year, IMF chief Christine Lagarde noted that having an equal number of women as men in the workforce could boost India’s GDP by 27 per cent. McKinsey also observed a significant bump to the GDP if more Indian women had paying jobs.
Today’s Facebook friendly generation could be the harbinger of change. When Mark Zuckerberg announced (and took) two months off after his daughter was born, he made a statement: It’s perfectly acceptable and even, cool, to take paternity leave. “Studies show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families,” he wrote on Facebook. Zuckerberg is in a privileged position. Looking at his Facebook posts, it appears, he worked during the two months. Yet his action bestowed credibility on the idea that fathers should be involved from the get go.
The beauty of India is our ability to adapt. A disproportionately young working age population can embrace change faster than an older one. The private sector can lead the way. Many companies are recognised for their progressive, “women friendly” HR policies. Can these eventually become gender agnostic? Could raising a family be viewed as a joint effort by mothers and fathers? Accelerating the long journey towards parity at the workplace can happen when we stop thinking of childcare and domestic chores as primarily a woman’s job.
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