Businesses are missing a trick if they fail to respect and accommodate the family responsibilities of their employed women. Employer hostility towards working women during their pregnancy and motherhood phase is a disgrace to say the least. An increasing number of research studies show that tapping into the full potential of women and benefiting from the innovation and creativity of gender diversity is an investment with returns that build strong and viable economies and enhance business outcomes.

Parliament passed the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill 2016, expected to benefit at least 1.8 million women, on March 9 and put India on the global map as a progressive state. It entitles Indian working women to several benefits including increasing maternity leave to 26 weeks from the previous 12 weeks. In a first, maternity leave will be made available to mothers adopting a child below the age of three months as well as to “commissioning mothers”.

It is now mandated that every establishment with 50 or more employees provide crèche facilities; working mothers can make four visits to the crèche daily during working hours. There is also the possibility to work from home; and every establishment is now bound to make known in writing and electronically, the maternity benefits to every woman employee, at the time of her appointment.

Naysayers and others There are those, however, who see the Bill as saddling businesses with added costs, leading to a reluctance to hire women. It is emphasised that workplace initiatives can only supplement, not substitute government policies to provide an enabling environment for working women to engage in paid work after childbirth.

Globally, working mothers have been treated prejudicially owing to the stereotypical way of perceiving women as primary caretakers of the family. The male-dominated corporate culture, too, sees working mothers as liabilities. Too often, new mothers are let down as they try to balance work and family life. Employment insecurity, harassment at work, and pressure to quit are some issues women have to deal with during pregnancy or maternity leave, across the spectrum of the business world.

Maternity protection, once seen as an employee benefit, is now the law in many countries. Some businesses, however, have established their own women friendly policies: longer maternity leave than statutorily mandated and flexible work options. Recognising the value of the gender diversity, some businesses ensure that their corporate policy and culture makes a difference in the lives of their employees. Such businesses are not only preferred employers, they have also registered increased productivity and profitability.

Work-life balance Many women following pregnancy look for flexible work options in order to multi-task and manage their work-life balance. This option is now used as a tool to attract and retain top talent and mitigate attrition . However, the Bill has no provision for men to avail themselves of paternity leave and to share equal childcare responsibilities. Unfortunately, it does not seem as though any steps have been taken towards gender parity to break the barriers of stereotyping that has been handed down.

Women as entrepreneurs, the next big thing, demandsattention and resources, and is making a phenomenal difference to the landscape of economic growth and development. Disenfranchising skilled, hard-working, women because of fears about their maternity period is not in the best interests of the nation, let alone businesses.

Although women have made notable advancements in business and management, working women continue to face hurdles to reach positions in senior leadership and decision-making bodies. The challenges they face are real and pressing, and responsible businesses have a case to create an inclusive culture so that each of their employees feels valued for their different talents and experiences, while still fostering team spirit based on common goals and attributes.

The writer is a Chennai-based advocate and founder of Vincents Law Firm

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