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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Let new dads take a break too

Granting men equal paternity leave goes beyond GDP; it acknowledges the role, responsibility and capacity of men as care-givers.

Just ahead of Father’s Day last year, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson announced an incredibly generous gift: a full year’s paid paternity leave. The point, however, was not magnanimity. The point was parity since new mothers at Virgin also get a full year off.

Closer home, minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi is pushing to more than double the amount of paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks in both the private and public sector. Notwithstanding the usual objections—how will it be implemented?, how can smaller companies be expected to bear the cost?, what about the informal sector?—I’m cheering the move. And yet, I couldn’t help feel a twinge at the missing words: paternity leave.

Paid maternity leave for 12 weeks has been mandated in India by law since 1961. Paternity leave, on the other hand, is a matter left to individual companies. Last year, in a move described variously as path-breaking and unprecedented, companies such as Flipkart and Intel India made headlines for increasing paternity leave from five to 10 whole days. No kidding. In May, Accenture India increased paid maternity leave to more than five months, while simultaneously announcing a week’s paid paternity leave.

Every bit counts and, so, I’m not really knocking these efforts. But seriously, what’s the logic for one week for daddies versus five months for mommies? And if you are going to raise the breast-feeding bogey, I suggest you google ‘breast pump’ now.

In November, the Seventh Pay Commission recommended child-care leave—two years off with pay to be taken once in the span of a career—for male central government employees, a privilege granted so far only to women. But even this recommendation comes with a caveat—only for single fathers—because the obvious assumption is that caring for children is a mother’s responsibility. Dads chip in only when mom isn’t conveniently around.

And yet, paid paternity leave on par with maternity leave is crucial for reasons that go beyond symbolism and beyond the obvious need for fathers to bond with their children.

If we are to achieve gender parity, then we need to break free of gender stereotypes for women and men. Lopsided child-care policies reinforce the idea of women as natural nurturers and men as natural providers. Progressive Iceland comes close to parity perfection in parental leave; three months of non-transferable parental leave to mothers and fathers and then an additional three months for couples to share as they choose.

Equal paternity leave will also enable a more equitable sharing of unpaid care work. All over the world, it is women who shoulder a disproportionate burden in caring for children and elderly parents, cooking, cleaning and so on—work that we see as essential, but somehow never grant the same respect or status as paid work outside the house.

In November last year, the McKinsey Global Institute found that women in India do nearly 10 times more unpaid care work than men, far above the global average of three times. If these women participated in the economy at par with men, our GDP would go up by at least 16% by 2025, found the report.

But granting men equal paternity leave goes beyond GDP and economics. It acknowledges the role, responsibility and capacity of men as care-givers. It invests them with the dignity and expanded scope of being more than just providers but also responsible fathers, sons and husbands. Given what’s at stake, I’m surprised men aren’t agitating harder for more paid time off to care for newborn children.

At a time when many corporates are struggling to retain mid-level female talent, it is odd that almost no one is talking about paternity leave at par with maternity leave. In many instances, women are reluctant to take extended leave, even when such facilities are extended to them, for fear of being regarded as somehow less professional and less eager to compete. The unstated fear also is that when they return after six months (or more), they might lose out on seniority, or be regarded as dispensable. But if leave-taking policies were gender-neutral, then women might be less diffident about taking them.

So, yes, three cheers to paid maternity leave. But since it’s 2016, maybe it’s time we started talking about equal paternity leave; fathers getting the same time off as mothers, three months each, would be a good place to start.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor at Mint

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