Lead Story

Failing Women With Fine Intent

The government just announces progressive policies for women and leaves implementation and financials to the employer. What should have worked for women at workplace becomes a double disadvantage in tough times

Published 9 months ago on Mar 01, 2023 11 minutes Read

That women, accounting for nearly half the population of India, are major stakeholders in the economic growth of India is a policymaker’s cliché, which appears ad nauseam in government documents. The government has been patting its back for taking “progressive” and “women friendly” initiatives, like raising maternity leave duration from 12 weeks to 26 weeks and mandating a creche for business units with more than 50 employees and adequate safety measures for women working in night shifts. The prevention of sexual harassment (POSH) at workplace act, notified by the earlier government, too has been seen as a protective shield for working women. But the on-ground situations beckon concerned attention.

For a largely patriarchal society where majority of the women do not even enter the workforce for reasons ranging from domestic obligations to safety concerns, policy impetus is the least a government can do to nudge them and their families to allow them to work. Unfortunately, the government’s intent seems to have created a problem it had not anticipated. It has restricted itself to just framing regulations and left the implementation on employers which must deal with the financial implications of the implementation of these rules all by themselves. Between the government’s progressive intent on paper and the employer’s reluctance to pick the tab for being gender positive, a peculiar situation has arisen where pro-women measures are pushing the industry in the opposite direction.

Maternity Benefits: A Tightening Noose?

While presenting the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill in March 2017, then labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya called it an International Women’s Day gift to the women of India. He touted the amendments to the 1961 act as “progressive” in nature. But is the move, which raised the mandatory 12 weeks of maternity leave to 26, as progressive as the government would like to, and want everyone else too to, believe or is it the proverbial noose around the necks of women that is tightening over time?

A year after the act was passed, the Ministry of Labour and Employment acknowledged its counterproductive impact. In a press release, it said that it was getting complaints “that when the employers come to know that their women employee is in the family way or applies for maternity leave, the contracts are terminated on some flimsy grounds”. The reason is not difficult to understand.

“While the amendment is a step towards ensuring better maternal health, there can be concerns around the additional liability it places on employers, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Also, companies may find it challenging to manage the workload in the absence of a key employee, especially if there is no suitable replacement available,” says Priyanka Khanna, chief revenue officer at Shivaami, a Mumbai-headquartered cloud services provider.

The additional liability refers to the wages to be paid to a woman on maternity leave for six months without getting any work done in return. Absence of reimbursements from the government makes it a burden that smaller establishments cannot afford to bear.

A 2020 survey by LocalCircles, a social media platform for community and governance which gathered responses from SMEs, start-ups and entrepreneurs, found that 33% respondents did not hire women in the past year, while 16% said they had hired fewer women than in the previous years. Another 33% said they had hired the same number of women, with only 16% saying they had hired more women than in previous years. Thus, approximately 49% start-ups or SMEs had hired fewer or no women in 12 months, their contention being that the six-month duration of maternity leave be reduced.

Another consequence could be slower growth. According to Khanna, some employers may view women as less productive or less committed to their work if they take maternity leaves. “This perception can lead to discrimination, unequal pay or being passed over for promotions,” she adds. Taking time off from work can also result in missed opportunities, Khanna feels.

“It is entirely possible that policies supporting women might be seen by private employers as an additional cost on account of factors like maternity leave, creches at workplaces, etc. and persuade them to hire fewer women. If that happens, the policy will end up having unintended negative consequences,” says Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics and founding director of the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) at Ashoka University.

According to a study conducted by Genpact Centre for Women’s Leadership of Ashoka University, titled Predicament of Returning Mothers, 73% of women in India leave their jobs after giving birth and fail to return. Around 50% of the working women in the country resign at the age of 30 to take care of their children. Even among those who return, 48% quit within four months of returning to the workforce.

Who Pays for the Benefits?

Of the 190 countries covered in the Women, Business and the Law 2022 report of the World Bank, less than half have maternity benefits paid exclusively by the government.

“The biggest employer in the formal sector is still the Indian government, be it railways or ports or any other department. It cannot absolve itself of the responsibility [of implementation of policies] at all. The entire implementation is being dumped on the private sector,” says Ritu Dewan, vice president, Indian Society of Labour Economics

If the government absolves itself entirely, who will take the implementation seriously, she asks.

Anjali Raghuvanshi, chief people officer, Randstad India, agrees. “Implementation of women-centric policies is a combined responsibility of the government and the private sector,” she says. According to her, while holding the companies solely responsible for such practices might not be fair, it is important that a nudge comes from the government to encourage faster implementation.

A report by the International Labour Organization on maternity laws and practices around the world, published in 2014, found that 58% of all countries have paid maternity leave that is funded through social security and another 16% of countries fund it through a mixed model, where costs are shared jointly by the individual employer and the state.

“Indeed, the cost of hiring women of childbearing age is higher for employers in economies in which laws mandate that they fund maternity benefits. This could lead to disparities in both hiring and salaries to compensate for administering women’s leave,” the report notes, adding, that while a certain amount of leave upon the birth of a child is associated with positive outcomes, “excessively long durations of leave may have a negative effect” on career progression and wages”.

To somewhat address the undesired impact of the act, the labour ministry had said in 2018 that it was working on an incentive scheme where the government would reimburse the wages of seven of the additional 14 weeks for women earning up to Rs 15,000 to companies which provided 26 weeks of maternity leave. The estimated burden on the exchequer would be Rs 400 crore annually, it said.

Not Quite POSH

Another legislation that may have failed women is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, also called the POSH act. In January this year, National Commission for Women chairperson Rekha Sharma wrote to chief secretary of Haryana Sanjeev Kaushal, noting that the implementation of the POSH act on the ground was far from satisfactory. Though it was enacted in 2013, there is hardly any data available to gauge its effectiveness.

The #MeToo movement is a case in point. At its peak, several women in India spoke up about sexual harassment at workplace. Many of the complainants alleged violation of the POSH act requirements.

Awareness about the POSH act is low across the country, says POSH consultant and trainer Uttam Sharma. “The onus is on the government to spread adequate awareness, but nothing happens on that front. Even when training sessions are done, they are more to show on paper than for any serious purpose,” he says. Like in case of maternity benefits, the costs, though low according to Sharma, have to be borne by the employer.

“Even the compliance rate is dismal. Around 80% of the companies which I have come across do not comply with the POSH act norms. They do not even have an internal committee,” he says. He holds the government accountable for the situation for failing to do its bit to improve compliance. Refusing to divulge names, he says that a few big companies in the country blatantly violate the rules. In absence of provisions mandating random inspections at establishments, POSH compliance remains mostly on paper, he explains.

The scenario is bleaker for the unorganised sector where women are more reluctant to seek redressal for fear of social stigma and impact on their livelihood, Sharma avers, adding, “There are nodal officers from the women and child development ministry at district collectorates, but there is hardly any awareness even about that.”

Tremors in MSMEs

The MSME sector employs more women compared to other sectors. The rate of women’s participation in the workforce in the sector stood at 24%, according to a CIEL HR Analysis study released last year. Interestingly, the study also found that while women’s participation is high in this sector, their involvement at the leadership level was only 10%. For a sector that works on cash flow and limited scale, the onus of progressive laws adversely impacts what these laws set out to remedy. Increase in paid benefits that employers in this sector are mandated to pay gave a women-intensive sector more reasons to not hire more women.

Deshpande feels that policies alone cannot be held responsible for the low participation of women in MSMEs. “Around 99% of MSMEs are micro—not small or medium. The average number of employees in micro enterprises is less than two per establishment. This means none of these policies are binding on these establishments,” she says. With this argument, she asks why the proportion of women in the sector is as low as 24%.

According to her, better facilities and services will help increase women’s presence in the workforce.

The turn of the century saw more women enter the workforce. But further into the new millennium, things do not appear as optimistic. According to data on the website of the labour ministry, based on Census 2011 data, the work participation rate of women in India was 22.7% in 1991, which rose to 25.63% in 2001. However, it dropped, albeit marginally, to 25.51% in 2011.

Employment and jobs have been a persistent problem in India for decades now. The Covid-19 pandemic further exacerbated the crisis. Women’s employment was more adversely impacted compared to men, and its impact remained even in 2022. Data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s household surveys shows that though employment recovered from the initial shock, the recovery is still not complete. Compared to January 2020, almost 14 million fewer individuals were employed in October 2022, which included 4.5 million fewer men and 9.6 million fewer women.

Menstrual Leave as a Bone of Contention

In 2017, member of Parliament (MP) from Arunachal Pradesh Ninong Ering introduced The Menstruation Benefits Bill 2017 in the Lok Sabha. Among the objections raised against it was the fear that it would impact the employment prospects of women, as it would entitle them to extra leaves besides taking them out of the workflow even if briefly.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, in The Women’s Sexual Reproductive and Menstrual Rights Bill 2018, pointed out that absence of access to menstrual hygiene products was taking many girls and women out of school and workforce respectively.

Last month, the Supreme Court dismissed a public interest litigation seeking menstrual leave for working women and students and asked the petitioner to approach the women and child development ministry, but not before agreeing that making menstrual leaves mandatory “would de facto operate as a disincentive to engage women as employees.”

The Social Angle

It is not just salaried women employees who find themselves at a disadvantage because of their gender. Even those who decide to go the entrepreneurial way hardly have it easy. The reasons are often rooted in traditional prejudices, but lack of effective policy implementation exacerbates the condition.

“Women have to work twice as hard and constantly prove themselves to be taken seriously at every level,” says Khushboo Jain Tibrewala, nutritionist and founder of wellness and fitness services provider The Health Pantry. She confesses that the biggest challenge she faced while starting out as an entrepreneur was being taken seriously. “Everyone from your CA to banks, even your family will start off a conversation with the assumption that you are a bored housewife and just looking for some new fun thing to do,” she says.

Anushree Jain, co-founder of SocialTag, a talent management agency, could not agree more. “In a dominating male society, you struggle to prove yourself and get access to equal opportunities. Women run fewer than 13% of the Indian small business. Despite government policies, they face discrimination because of their gender.”

The Solution

“Women face a range of challenges at the workplace that can impact their career progression, job satisfaction and overall well-being. Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach that involves organisational change, policy reform and cultural shifts in the workplace,” says Khanna. The government and the employers will have to work together to find solutions, she suggests, adding, “By working together, we can find an acceptable formula that supports gender equality in the workplace while also ensuring business sustainability.”

“We believe that paternity leaves should also be mandated to ensure that India Inc. offers a level-playing field and eliminates the stigma for women that they are the only ones taking leaves,” says Raghuvanshi.

The Periodic Labour Force Survey estimates the female worker population ratio for the year 2019-20 at 28.7% against 73% males. For a country like India which is banking on its young working age population to drive its economic growth, women need to be not only brought into and retained in the workforce, but also allowed to realise their maximum potential.

Unless the government can find a viable solution that agrees with the private sector, both organised and unorganised, there is little to suggest that the situation will change any time soon.