Bengaluru: As with all things related to gender that is skewed, so is parental leave. A child-bearing woman gets 180 days of paid maternity leave as a result of the three- week old Maternity Benefit bill. But a new father gets five to 10 days of paternity leave, that too if he is lucky. Private companies in India are not obligated to give any paternity leave.
While companies have bought the argument that paid maternity leave helps women get back to the workforce faster and revised their leave policies even before it was mandated, the same can’t be said about paternity leave.
Most private companies in India give about 5-10 days of paternity leave as a benefit. A few like Google India, ThoughtWorks India and Star India give up to four weeks of paternity leave, and Facebook offers four months of paternity leave, the maximum any company in India provides. But unlike maternity leave, there has not been much debate about paternity leave, until last week, when minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi likened paternity leave to paid vacation for men and questioned the logic of giving more paternity leave when men seldom use their existing leave.
And this seems to be a widely held belief among companies too.
“The reality is that very few men utilise even the prescribed paternity leave options. While usage has improved during the last decade or so, this is still minuscule. Attitudes towards parenting are changing, albeit slowly,” said Jagjit Singh, chief people officer, PwC India, which gives five days of paternity leave.
A 2014 survey by Boston College Center for Work and Family, showed that organizations in the US offered two weeks of fully paid leave to fathers on an average.
And in the US, where family support during the birth of a child is not as much as in India, 76% of fathers went back to work after one week or less after the birth of a child, and 96% after two weeks or less. That means, most fathers take only about a day of leave for every month a mother takes, said the report called The New Dad.
Nandita Gurjar, former group HR head of Infosys Ltd blames the leadership, which is mostly composed of men, for failing to take note of the need for paternity leave. “Given that men make most of the senior leadership, they do not grasp why these policies need to change,” says she. “The general thinking is that women need the time to nurse; but what will a man do during that period?”
Some companies believe that paternity leave is not necessary and question the need for such a policy.
Santrupt Mishra, group HR head of the Aditya Birla Group says: “An employee typically has 52 weekends off making it 100 odd-days a year. Plus there is usually seven days of sick leave, 7-10 days of casual leave, about seven days of festival holidays and 26 days of privilege leave. The total works out about 140 plus days. We expect our employees to be able to manage all their issues within that. As a good employer, we provide further time off as may be needed in exceptional circumstances through a flexible approach,” he says, adding that the group does not have a paternity leave provision.
“I do not think any employee has missed out on supporting their family because we do not have such a policy.”
But the case for greater paternity leave does exist.
“Most women feel trapped and are not able to get back to work soon as they are seen as the primary caregiver. More paternity leave will help share the child-rearing duties between the parents,” believes Gurjar. “Years of social conditioning that it is a woman’s job to raise a child has led to the lack of recognition for the need for paternity leave.”
While longer maternity leave does help women to get back to work, it also slows down their prospects of becoming managers, and widens the pay gap and not just that, it raises the bar for women to even the workforce as employers become cautious about the kind of women they hire.
“A blanket policy (the maternity benefits bill) is only going to deter employers from hiring more women as they will get more cautious and the bar for hiring women will get higher,” said Saundarya Rajesh, founder and president of Avtar group, a diversity and inclusion talent strategy consulting firm.
She also believes that it is companies with good paternity benefits that make a good workplace for women.
In fact, if companies want to encourage women to get back to work faster, companies must adopt the policy of a shared parental leave, where within set limits, the couple decide the amount of leave that should be taken.
For instance, countries like Iceland devised a 3-3-3 formula where each parent gets three months of leave and the last three months is shared between the two. In 2015, the UK became the latest to give shared leave.
In the UK, after the two-week mandatory maternity leave, parents can take 25 weeks of leave together or take turns and in turn get 90% of their earnings.
Gandhi, too, who kindled the debate, softened her stance and said in future there could be a “more sophisticated” legislation to address concerns regarding lack of paternity leave for new fathers.