India’s largest bank was in the news recently, not for some huge defaulter scooting overseas, but for its recent communication on revised recruitment norms. Under the new rules which had been formulated, a woman candidate, who is more than three months pregnant, will be considered “temporarily unfit” to join duty. Magnanimously, it had added such a woman candidates could join duty within four months after delivery!

Expectedly there was a largescale public outcry and the Chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, Swati Maliwal, tweeted terming the bank’s move both “discriminatory and illegal, as it could affect maternity benefits provided under the law”.

SBI quickly withdrew the new guidelines, but failed to be gender-correct, saying that these new rules were kept in abeyance in “view of public sentiment”. The statement also talked about “some sections of the media” interpreting the revised guidelines “discriminatory against women”. The wording makes it abundantly clear that whoever had thought of this devious way of keeping out a section of women, resented the recall of the revised guidelines.

Of course some noise had to be made about how this mammoth bank is conscious of gender equity, so the press note added that SBI has always been proactive in the “care and empowerment of its women employees, who now constitute about 25 per cent of our workforce.” It also pointed out that during the Covid pandemic, according to government instructions, pregnant employees were exempted from attending office and allowed to work from home.

Apparently, in the present scheme of things, women candidates up to six months pregnant are allowed to join the bank, provided they get a medical certificate saying that taking up employment at this state of pregnancy would not affect her health.

The distressing part about this whole brouhaha is that too often a pregnant employee or new entrant is seen as a liability. In so many overt or covert ways, workplace conversations are heavily loaded against pregnant women, and are met with groans, visible or invisible, by bosses, including female ones.

Of course, the absence, or impending absence, of your star performer from the workplace for a period of time is an inconvenience. But then miracles, like bringing a child into this world, don’t happen just like that.

Thankfully, both governments and employers have stepped up their support for new mothers, by increasing maternity leave and expanding its scope by allowing paternity leave too. So the new mother can return to work sooner, knowing that at least one parent is home to take care of the baby.

There is no doubt that quicker return to work after childbirth helps to stop the disruption or stagnation in a woman’s career and we owe it to one half of our population, who unfortunately do not make up one half of our workforce in the organised sector, to give their best to their organisations.

Bizarre case

When the discussion is about pregnancy and supporting pregnant women, we have to talk about the bizarre case of Charlotte Bellis, a pregnant Kiwi journalist working for Al Jazeera, who was struggling to return home as her application had got entangled in New Zealand’s very strict MIQ (managed isolated quarantine) rules for everyone returning to the country from a foreign land.

Telling her story in the New Zealand Herald, she says that after being told for years by doctors that she can never conceive a child, she found herself pregnant while in Qatar. Her partner is a freelance photographer who works for the The New York Times.

The problem is that in Qatar the law doesn’t allow an unmarried woman to be pregnant. He is from Belgium and the Schengen visa rules allowed her to stay only for a few months and she didn’t have health insurance either.

As her attempt to get back to her home country got frustrated by the MIQ quotas and other technicalities, she had to ironically turn to the Taliban, for Afghanistan was the only country for which both the journalists had valid visas. Even more ironic, Charlotte was the journalist who had asked the Taliban at its maiden press conference after taking over the country, on how it would treat the Afghan women!

Well, fact is often stranger than fiction. According to her column, the Taliban, which publicly lashes Afghan women for even going out with an unrelated man, gave them permission to return to Afghanistan, advising them to tell everybody that they were married.

But she was terrified at the prospect of delivering her baby in a country with poor medical facilities.

But fortunately, after much dilly-dallying, the New Zealand government has now facilitated Charlotte’s return to her home country to deliver her child in a safe environment. This has thankfully put an end to her trauma.