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A large part of India still treats its women as inferior to men, largely due to socially-entrenched notions of patriarchy. This is evident from India’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Index ranking, wherein it has slipped 28 places since 2020 to No. 140 out of 156 nations ranked. The gender gap in the country has also widened, with only 62.5% of it closed and especially low gender parity in political empowerment and economic participation and opportunity. Women are paid considerably less than men, with some research showing that the gender pay gap between women and men in the same jobs with equivalent qualifications can be as much as 34%. India, as of 2020, has the lowest female labour force participation rate among South Asian nations, with four out of five women neither working nor looking for jobs.

Among women, mothers face higher discrimination than non-mothers. Some employers perceive the former as being less competent and committed than the latter, and hold them to much higher professional standards. They are also hired and promoted less often, and generally receive lower salaries. This is called the ‘motherhood penalty’.

The motherhood penalty in India has been documented by Das and Zumbyte (2017) using regression analysis to establish an increasingly negative relationship between the probability of Indian women getting employed and the presence of a young child in their households. Bedi et al (2018) conducted a field experiment in India, under which they sent fake CVs for service-sector jobs with some selected at random to include mothers, and found a motherhood penalty evident in the callback rates. Mothers are employed less than non-mothers, implying that this penalty plays a significant role in low Indian female labour force participation, which according to World Bank data for 2020 is only 20.3%.

The pandemic has worsened the gender divide, with women—especially mothers— suffering much more than men. According to Oxfam, 17 million women in India lost their jobs in April 2020, with their unemployment rate rising far higher than that among men. Women were found to be seven times more likely to lose their jobs during the lockdown phases, and if rendered unemployed, were 11 times more likely to remain jobless than their male counterparts. Potential reasons for this include the increased burden of domestic responsibilities that Indian women typically had to bear, in terms of not just household chores but extra time needed for elderly care and children’s studies, with schools shut. Even pre-pandemic, a Time Use Survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Office showed that women spent nearly 4.5 hours on childcare and other care-giving responsibilities, in contrast with the meagre 0.88 hours for men.

To combat the motherhood penalty, reorienting workplace norms to make them more gender equal is essential. There still exist employer notions about women returning from maternity breaks with lower productivity. Currently, India has a Maternity Benefit Act, but no similar law for paternity benefits. An amendment to the Act in 2017 increased paid maternity leave from 12 to 26 weeks. Though well-meaning, this unfortunately fortifies notions of care-giving being primarily the onus of the woman, and thus reinforces and raises the risk of women being subject to the motherhood penalty. An explicit law for mandatory paternity benefits will go a long way towards equalizing gender roles and reducing employer bias.

Further, the provision and strengthening of childcare facilities for working mothers are very important. The Maternity Benefit Act mandates the setting up of creche facilities for organizations with over 50 employees. A better policy measure would be to provide mothers in need of childcare with a monthly allowance. This will also help mothers working from home.

While paternity benefits and better childcare will partially alleviate the motherhood penalty, the gender pay gap that women and mothers face remains a problem unsolved. The Code on Wages, 2019, places the responsibility of detection and punishment for non-compliance on the inspector. However, it has been argued that the onus of compliance should be on the employer, as opposed to third parties such as inspectors. Iceland, ranked as the world’s most gender-equal nation, pioneered a policy in 2018 that requires firms with more than 25 employees to prove every three years that they provide equal pay. Once proven, these companies receive certification (mandatory since the start of 2020). Firms without certification incur a daily fine. This shift of the burden of proof to the employer is reported to have improved Iceland’s workplace environment. Ireland is another example that requires companies with more than 250 employees to publish data on disparities between average and median hourly wages and bonuses for both genders.

For India, adopting the Icelandic policy of mandatory certification would be beneficial. A specific committee, with at least half its members female, should be instituted for the review of documents of proof submitted by companies, and to ensure that sanctions are imposed on non-compliant employers. Mandatory publishing of data on disparities in wages between the two genders would also compel firms to pay equally, as publicized wage disparities could harm their reputation. This would help mitigate the gender pay gap in India and also the inequities associated with the motherhood penalty.

Amar Patnaik is a member of the Rajya Sabha from Odisha and a former bureaucrat who worked with the Comptroller and Auditor General of India. These are the author’s personal views.

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