Pregnancy, pumps and paternity

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Own It: Leadership lessons from women who do; Aparna Jain; HarperCollins; Business; ₹599

Own It: Leadership lessons from women who do; Aparna Jain; HarperCollins; Business; ₹599

Shared parental leave is win-win but are companies and, importantly, co-workers ready for it?

Announcing a pregnancy to a boss is not something most women in the corporate workplace look forward to. They are worried about how their boss will react. A friend said she mustered up the courage to tell her boss about her pregnancy only when she was five months’ pregnant and beginning to show. She walked up to him at a company party where he was having a drink and said, ‘I have something to tell you.’ He asked her what it was. She said, ‘I’m pregnant.’ His first reaction? ‘Oh shit.’

Three months’ maternity leave is legally mandatory in India. This is far more progressive than the US, where there is no legally mandated maternity leave by legislation. Some companies the world over have added to the leave prescribed by their respective governments and are now providing a more balanced maternity leave policy as well as paternity leave. India’s minister for Women and Child Development is proposing an eight-month maternity break for women. Utopia for many! Even more so, in my opinion, if these eight months were to be divided between both parents: five months of maternity leave followed by three months of paternity leave. Why don’t we have paternity leave? Some companies have a week of paternity leave. How is that enough? Ideally, if a woman takes care of herself and the baby for the first three months, but the baby still needs another three months of nurturing, why can’t the father get three months paternity leave in the baby’s first year so that the mother can go back to work? Shared parental leave. That’s real equity.

How would extended maternity leave impact bias? Unless we change the way companies approach this, I fear these measures may have a negative impact both on hiring and on women coming back to the workplace after leave. Vandana Saxena Poria lives in Pune and she and her husband moved to India from Budapest when she was pregnant for the second time. She started to work full-time after she had a baby girl. Her work demanded she travel often, and she left the baby at home, in the care of her husband. One day, while on a business trip to Mumbai, she was asked about her family by two men at a business meeting.

‘I told them I had a little boy and a baby girl at home,’ she says, ‘and I could see their expressions suddenly change into a questioning look. How could I leave my little baby and travel? So, of course I was quick to add that my husband was taking care of him. And their eyes grew wider, and hardened. Damn! I realised I had said the “wrong” thing, so I quickly added that my mother and a maid were there to help. They smiled and nodded. I finally exhaled, knowing I had said the “right” thing. As long as there was a woman with the baby, it was all right. And two were even better. But the father of the child? Definitely not! The expectations and the pressure on women to stay home with the child are enormous. Else we are judged harshly.’

It’s not just the men who are biased. One would imagine women who have had babies would understand, but that’s not always the case. How insensitive one is can also stem from how far removed the privileged boss is from the people who work down the line.

The story below is folklore in a large media company. My friend, Yana Puri, gave me the lowdown over dinner one night: ‘You know TV staff have shifts and different days of the week off, depending on the timetable. A young woman had a Saturday off. She got a call that morning about an urgent meeting that the head of the company had called. (The head of the company was informally called ‘Dayan Didi’ because she had the reputation of behaving like a witch.) This woman had no reliable babysitter, and could not arrange one at short notice, but was worried that if she did not go, she would lose out on something important. Besides, Dayan Didi had summoned them, and that was scary enough. So, with her part-time nanny and baby in tow, she drove to the office, where she was stopped from entering the office. Why? Because her baby and nanny were not allowed in. She called her boss, but he said he couldn’t help. No exception was made for them to come up with guest badges and sit near the desks in an empty office or at the reception lounge. In mortal fear of Dayan Didi, she went upstairs, and attended a two-hour-long meeting while her nanny and baby suffered in the heat outside. They were not even allowed to sit in the guard room. When Dayan Didi was later told that this had happened, she was unrepentant. “Of course, we do not have a facility for babies here. I don’t know why people can’t find babysitters.”’

No empathy, no understanding. Just elitism and utter disdain. When one is disconnected from their employees, they will lose out on women and the workforce.

‘As far as performance ratings for women coming back from maternity are concerned, they are based on the six months they work in the firm. But it’s not as simple as only changing the policy,’ says Sona Pillai, the diversity and inclusion lead at a large firm in India. ‘You need to address the men’s bias towards their women colleagues on account of this decision. I find that men who have working wives get it but many others don’t. I have heard in the past from managers: “Bell curve fit karna hain. I have four men who have done well all year, but this woman has only done six months; why should I give her a high score in her appraisal based on her six months of work?” Our human resources division has been brilliant and has done a great job with training managers. They started workshops in 2008, long before most companies did, to address this issue and other biases, and with every passing year the attitude of men has turned more positive.’

There is a flip side to having a policy — and that is when it does not come with sufficient support. In essence, are your colleagues ready to deal with your motherhood? Have they been suitably sensitised and trained?

Seema Mathur, who has worked in one of the country’s largest multinational banking firms, says: ‘I was overseeing a certain team as part of my diversity work and in it was a number-one ranked associate. She had got the highest ratings. She went on maternity leave and when she came back, she got her bonus. Her colleagues were resentful — both the men and the women. According to them, she was out, she was away. How dare she get a bonus? Basically, how dare she have a baby while we work?

‘She had informed HR that she needed to get home by seven every evening, which was agreed upon. She would go home and diligently get down to work on her computer and work till 2 a.m. But her colleagues were hostile and treated her poorly. She finally came to me one day and said she was going to leave because the environment was stifling. Her boss did nothing to get his team to behave.

‘I spoke to the head of HR but she couldn’t find a solution to address the bad attitude. Ironically, this HR head is a woman who talks incessantly to the media about how they bring women back from maternity in an inclusive fashion. She couldn’t manage it. No effort was made to try and retain this young woman. She was junior enough so they let her go, although they needed her.

‘The organisation was not going to implement any serious changes to make the environment conducive for women to not only return, but to stay on. If one makes a serious commitment to keeping women in the workforce, they do stay. I have seen companies where colleagues and bosses support women who come back after delivering a baby. A good boss is flexible. A good boss says we will find a way to work this out. So, why does a number-one ranked woman leave? It’s simple; it’s because the organisation doesn’t want to change.’

No matter how successful a woman is in the corporate workplace there are a number of questions that cross her mind. Among the most common are:

The pressure of being able to manage bias at the workplace and the pressures at home can take a hit on the woman’s emotions. While statistics point to a large number of women falling off the corporate ladder during or after maternity, progressive Indian companies have stepped up to make changes within their organisations to support women. And they have seen a positive shift in the numbers of women coming back to work — and staying there.

What is truly needed in corporate India are not only a change in policies, it is a mindset change. Across genders. That includes a shift to including the father as primary caregiver, a deeper understanding of the pressures on a woman when her child is young and a more emphatic and supportive workplace.

Own It: leadership lessons from women who do was published this month

Published on January 29, 2016

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