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Ashish Taneja plans his day to accommodate his children’s school pick-up and activities time.
Ashish Taneja plans his day to accommodate his children’s school pick-up and activities time.

Urban Dads: Bringing up baby

Walking the walk on women's empowerment also means companies include policies that allow men to become hands-on parents

Cobbling together 21 days of leave to be there for his wife and newborn took some amount of planning for Gurgaon-based Pavankumar P.V.K. His employer, technology company SAP Labs India Pvt. Ltd, typically offers one week of paternity leave. Among a small but slowly growing set of urban dads who want to be part of their children’s birth and growing up years, Pavankumar spoke to his manager about combining the seven days of paternity leave with two weeks of paid leave in June to be with his wife and son in Hyderabad.

Government rules often set the tone for the human resource (HR) policies of companies. In 1999, the Union government had instituted rules for its own staff to offer up to 15 days of paid leave to expecting and new fathers. Paternity leave could be clubbed with other kinds of leave, according to the rules, and there was also the option to extend the leave in case of emergencies. Indeed, most employers we spoke to offer 5-15 days’ paternity leave.

But some companies are now going beyond just compliance. They have developed feedback mechanisms to understand, and accommodate, their employees’ life as well as career aspirations. One of their more recent observations: snail-paced as the change might be, male employees increasingly want to be a significant part of bringing up the baby.

“There is a demand," agrees Balachandar N.V., executive director, HR, at Chennai-headquartered truck maker Ashok Leyland. He says the company is contemplating revising its policy of offering seven days’ paternity leave. “There have been formal and informal suggestions (on this) from the employees, and it has also come up from within the HR team," he says. “It’s important in the current lifestyle context."

Important to me

Subodh Maskara quit his job when his son Vihaan was born four years ago.
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Subodh Maskara quit his job when his son Vihaan was born four years ago.

In contrast, entrepreneur Subodh Maskara says he knew he wanted to quit his high-paying job as managing director of Polygenta Technologies Ltd, which makes polyester out of used plastic bottles, when his son Vihaan was born in 2010. Mumbai-based Maskara wanted to be part of his son’s growing up years, and figured his job might come in the way.

“In any corporate job—especially if you are the CEO/entrepreneur—one needs to lead through example. That means being there always for everybody and attending to all major issues personally. Add to that, there is constant pressure to grow bigger, to out-think and outperform the rest, so the mind space is overloaded with ‘job’ issues," says Maskara. “All this meant that I found it difficult to give the things that truly gave me happiness (health and family) enough time."

According to Gouri Dange, author of ABCs Of Parenting and a Mint columnist, it is important for the child’s holistic development to have both parents around, and it also helps the father develop as a person. “Many dads are also waking up to the sheer joy of parenting, not just the duty of it," says Dange.

Of course many factors worked in Maskara’s favour and he was able to quit day-to-day oversight of the company he had helped build up over decades. Maskara was in his 40s and financially secure by the time Vihaan was born. “But many people have that, even some of our friends, and still don’t want to leave. You need to take a call on what is important to you," says Maskara, now co-founder of CinePlay Digital Pvt. Ltd, which is in the business of preserving theatrical performances through films.

Maskara says he rarely travels without his son now. And while Vihaan is away in the US at Yale University, where his mother Nandita Das is part of the four-month World Fellows programme, he makes it a point to speak to him at least twice a day.

“From the day he was born, I can’t remember not telling him a bedtime story or being right there when he wakes up. These two times are extremely precious to me and I will not miss it for the world," says Maskara.

Work integration

There are several ways companies can enable working dads to be more hands-on parents, according to Dange, starting with “paternity leave. And if a company gives out the message that taking half a day off to attend a PTA (parent-teacher association) or to tend to a sick child is not a sign that a male employee has ‘domestic problems’ and hence will not perform well at work; it is a sign that he is seeking and working on a work-life balance".

According to Mumbai-based Dedeepya Ajith John, knowledge and research consultant at SHRM India, the local arm of the Society for Human Resource Management alliance of HR managers from 140 countries, this kind of integration allows employees to make room for activities like picking the children up from school or taking them to the doctor for vaccines during what would traditionally be called work hours, by exercising options like flexi-timings and work-from-home.

Pavankumar P.V.K always accompanies his five-month-old on doctor’s visitssometimes during office hours
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Pavankumar P.V.K always accompanies his five-month-old on doctor’s visitssometimes during office hours

His office allows him to come in 2 hours late or leave 2 hours sooner without notice. This means he can be there during what he calls “core business hours" as well as for scheduled team meetings and presentations. Sometimes, if the doctor’s appointment is for midday, he gives his manager and team members advance notice to let them know he won’t be available during those hours. Such efforts, of course, require the support of the bosses. At SAP Labs, senior consultant (HR) Amit Kombi says, managers are sensitized to be considerate with such requests.

Gendered expectations

Indra Nooyi, CEO of beverages and packaged snack foods company PepsiCo, in a July interview, drew attention to her own example of how bringing up the children is often seen as the prerogative or responsibility of the mother, depending on how you want to see it.

Speaking to The Atlantic news organization on the sidelines of the Aspen Ideas Festival, Nooyi shared her mother’s reaction when she became CEO: “You might be president of PepsiCo. You might be on the board of directors. But when you enter this house, you’re the wife, you’re the daughter, you’re the daughter-in-law, you’re the mother. You’re all of that. Nobody else can take that place. So leave that damned crown in the garage," she recalled.

Gender roles are partly enforced by culture, including work culture. So policies like short paternity leave, or the absence of such leave facility for men altogether, that don’t envisage an important role for the new father in bringing up baby, can reinforce in some ways the idea that rearing children is the mom’s job—even when she’s a working mom. Women typically get three-six months’ parental leave in India.

Plus, gender sensitization begins early and children pick up ideas and values from what they see around them. Dange says more involved fathers tend to bring up better sensitized and adjusted children. “Even in earlier generations, in households where the father was supportive and present in the day-to-day parenting needs, the children grew up to be more considerate, self-sufficient and well-rounded people," she says.

In for the long haul

Paternity leave is an important indicator of whether a company walks the walk on women’s empowerment. But what is perhaps even more important, and less easily measured, is how company policies support male employees’ involvement in their longer term engagement with bringing up the children.

SHRM’s John says that while the older generation saw working from home or taking a few hours off for personal tasks as a sign of poor work ethic, that perception is slowly changing. “Working fathers are often seen to work from home or take leave to babysit their children when their spouses need to go out of station on office work. This (the working fathers’ involvement) is also often observed during the instances of parent-teacher meet, important functions at school like sports day, etc., and also when the child is not feeling well," says John.

Ashish Taneja, a Gurgaon-based senior manager at technology firm Sapient, is an example. He finds option like flexi-timing useful when he is juggling office work and looking after his children, aged 3 and 6. Every day through August, for example, Taneja was leaving office early to pick up the children from school.

“With my wife travelling to countries in the Asia-Pacific region over the last year for work, I have had to take extra care of the kids," says Taneja. All through the month, Taneja made sure he planned his schedule around the children—to fit in school and extra classes, he would typically work from office in the first half of the day and leave phone calls and meetings for the second half. He informed people at the office in advance about the couple of hours in the afternoon when he would be unavailable. Once he settled the children in at home, he was online again, and could conduct meetings and work as usual.

Manika Awasthi Menon, director, people success, at Sapient, explains: “We introduced flexible working policies in 2005-06 and they cater not just to the women workforce but also men." Menon adds that as a technology office with a largely young workforce, the HR realized they needed to make room for working parents to be able to tend to a sick child or go for a soccer match when the child is playing.

That Taneja works in tandem with his wife to make sure one of them is always around to pick the children up from school is the best kind of arrangement, according to Dange. “What better balance can there be? To have a caring and capable set of parents, and for a child to know and experience that mother being away does not mean neglect, and that their father makes time and invests energy in them," she says.

Global yardstick

Paternity leave can range from zero to one year, depending on the country’s laws

Dedeepya Ajith John, knowledge and research consultant at SHRM India, says that while most companies in India provide paternity leave of five days to two weeks, this leave is taken out from the annual leave allotted to the employee and can be unpaid. A notable exception is Cisco Systems (India), which grants employees 12 weeks of paternity leave.

Her recommendation: two-three weeks of employee leave for fathers, to at least make sure they bring the new mom and baby safely home.

Globally, trends fluctuate from as low as zero days to a year, some unpaid and some paid, she says. “These are dependent on each of the country laws. While in some countries maternity leave can be shared between parents, other countries like Iran, Iraq, Thailand, Nepal, etc., do not have any paternity leave," explains John.

An interesting example, she says, is of countries like Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, where a set parental leave of up to one year can be split between the parents in any way they choose.

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