SBI’s circular on pregnant women applicants: Not in sync with times

Richa Mishra | Updated on: Feb 20, 2022
SBI’s recent circular has raised the hackles all around

SBI’s recent circular has raised the hackles all around | Photo Credit: GOPINATHAN K

With more women in work space HR structure also needs to undergo a drastic change

The country’s largest bank, State Bank of India, recently found itself drawn into controversy due to a circular that barred women candidates who are over three months pregnant from taking up jobs in the bank. The backlash that followed forced SBI to keep the ‘instructions’ in ‘abeyance’.

The Bank, through a statement on January 29 said: “SBI has recently reviewed the various Fitness Standards for Recruitment in the Bank, including norms for Pregnant Women candidates. The revised guidelines were intended to provide clarity on various health parameters where instructions were not clear or were very old. In some sections of the media, the revision in norms in this regard has been interpreted as discriminatory against women…”

“However, in view of the public sentiments, SBI has decided to keep the revised instructions regarding recruitment of pregnant women candidates in abeyance and continue with the existing instructions in the matter.”

But why keep it in abeyance and why not withdraw it? What prompted this decision – was it just keeping in mind the current pandemic concerns? What could be the trigger?

Some women bankers say, “The fact is that there are a lot of unconscious biases still remaining, which those doing it also are not aware.”

This statement may hold true to some extent. Today, when pregnancy is not really seen as a hindrance for a woman’s career circulars like these do raise eyebrows.

The contentious proposal: Clause 7 of the Bank Circular: which deals with pregnant women candidates existing guideline read as:

“They may be appointed in the Bank up to 6 months of pregnancy, provided the candidate furnishes a certificate from specialist gynecologist that her taking up Bank’s employment at that stage is in no way likely to interfere with her pregnancy or the normal development of the fetus, or is not likely to cause her miscarriage or otherwise to adversely affect her health.”

The proposed Amendment was:

“In case of pregnancy, which is less than 3 months, the candidate will be considered as fit. However, if pregnancy is of more than 3 months, she will be considered temporarily unfit and she may be allowed to join within 4 months after delivery of Child.”

There is an argument that maternity leave is a discretion which varies from individual to individual. Also, today, when most our working from home, the fear of exposure is less.

In fact, giants like SBI have always been proactive towards the care and empowerment of women employees who now constitute around 25 per cent of its workforce. During the Covid period, as per government instructions, pregnant women employees were exempted from attending office and allowed to work from home.

Then why did the bank come up with this circular? Was the All India Democratic Women’s Association right by calling it “The new year gift to women by State Bank of India is one coated with discrimination.”

Wasn’t this proposal contradicting the bank’s earlier instructions to its local head offices across the country that pregnancy should no longer be treated as a disability for immediate appointment or promotion?

Women must speak up

The biggest challenge for women is that they do not highlight the problems they face. Not only should they speak up but also suggest ways to resolve it, say those working in the sector.

Women working in the sector say there is need for a proper policy structure for pregnant women, including reworking medical requirements.

The All India State Bank of India Employees Association had raised the issue with regard to ‘Pregnant Women Candidates’ and termed the new amendment, as per the circular, as discriminatory. The amendment lacks medical logic and scientific rationale, they argued.

Such a proposal was mooted a few years ago and withdrawn subsequently. It is astonishing that such a retrograde amendment is proposed again, the Union pointed out.

“We therefore submit that the earlier position of allowing pregnant women candidates to join the Bank with medical advice that Bank’s employment in no way would likely intervene with her pregnancy or the normal development of fetus, or would not likely cause her miscarriage or otherwise to adversely affect her growth must continue. In this regard, we also submit that the stipulation of 6 months itself must be removed and no pregnant women if willing to take up employment at any stage must be debarred from employment,” it argued.

There is another debate, today when women are seeking parity with their male counterparts in all walks of life, ousting pregnant women from the appointment process amounts to discriminating against women in matters of public employment for reasons solely attributable to their gender.

Clearly, motherhood cannot be an excuse to exclude women from public employment, whether directly or indirectly. Besides, pregnancy is not a disease or disability or calamity or an accident.

Diversity matters

As Nitin Sethi, CEO, Aon Consulting, puts it, “There is nothing that women haven’t achieved in various spheres of work in India Inc today. Some of the largest organisations in the country are led by women, successful start-ups have women founders and over the last few years, women have also stepped in as fighter pilots and soon will be seen at the National Defense Academy.”

“We are a talent driven economy and for us to realise full potential we have to ensure that every segment of our current and future workforce have the opportunity to realise their full potential. Only then can we truly leave a mark,” he said adding “For this to happen, governments and organisations across India Inc have to ensure that we create policies, programmes, mindset and culture at work that encourages best talent irrespective of gender to apply, grow and flourish.”

Firms and leaders that truly embrace this mindset will drive great results, Sethi said. “It is proven that diverse organisations deliver more sustainable results, are more innovative, embrace future and manage ambiguity better. Successful organisations in addition to building more diversity at work are also driving programmes to change mindsets in existing workforce to embrace diversity,” he said.

Despite SBI keeping the circular in abeyance, there is a lurking fear that it could easily be proposed again. With the current talk of gig work, WFH and hybrid models, proposals like this are retrograde. With changing work dynamics and more women in the work space, the HR policy structure also needs to undergo a change. The HR set up in both government and private sector need greater awareness of women’s issues.

Published on February 20, 2022
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