Anjali Jhangiani
Saturday, 18 May 2019

Going beyond celebratory gestures, how are we supporting working women who are braving familial responsibilities and patriarchy? Anjali Jhangiani finds out

Just last week we celebrated Mother’s Day. Paragraphs dedicated to how the world would be mashed potatoes without mothers were posted on social media, flowers were given and cakes were cut. But are these gestures enough to really support the mothers who don’t want to give up their careers? What are we doing to show our appreciation to the hustlers who bear children and then get back to business? 

The government stepped in and passed the Maternity Benefits Act, which is supposed to be effective from 2017. Under this, any woman who has been employed in the establishment for a minimum of 80 days during the current year is entitled to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. Depending on the nature of her work, she can work from home after the maternity leave, and crèche facility is mandatory for any organisation with 50 or more employees while allowing mothers four daily visits there. 

Seems legit? In an ideal world where rules are followed to the T, it does sound like a fair deal. But since the world we live in is far from ideal, for every law that is made for the benefit of new mothers at the workplace, there is a loophole that the management finds, or they tend to implement the rules with sluggish enthusiasm. Issues like pregnancy discrimination, maternity leave, post maternity transition support, child care support really exist across various industries in the country even today. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. 

But the great thing about the female gender is that when it comes to motherhood, we’re all in to support each other in whatever way we can. Women at the top level management of companies across various sectors talk about how they cheer for, stand up for, and encourage other women in the workplace to conquer the world together. 

Imagine a world where men could get pregnant — maternity leave would probably last way longer, nursing facilities would be readily available, childcare too. In fact, being a parent would be mentioned as a special skillset on resumes. But in reality, companies are sceptical of hiring new mothers, they probably assume that she won’t be able to handle her work and motherhood or that she’ll be too hormonal to play an important role and make important decisions, and so wait on her to quit. 

Thankfully, this is changing. Monica Oswal, executive director, Monte Carlo, says, “We understand how important it is for women to have a balance between work and quality time with her family. It is very important for women to support other women and keep breaking the barriers of society with hard work and meritocracy. We treat our employees as our family and whenever they require leaves, we do not hesitate to grant it, and we do not discriminate between male and female employees in this regard. Plus we have grievance handling meetings conducted on a regular basis where all employees share their grievances and resolutions are worked on.”

Shruti Mishra, vice president of Flags Communications and former Aaj Tak journalist, believes that the society today at large has become open to the fact that women should get, to say the least, equal opportunities as their male counterparts. “Fortunately the business we are in, you see almost equal number of women or may be more. At Flags, we have a clear mandate of hiring more women than men as we very strongly believe that women are more committed, consistent and loyal towards everything they do. They are given the most important roles and job profiles to utilise their core competences in the best possible manner,” she says, adding, “It’s very important for all organisations to support their female staff. Not just motherhood, even after marriage, women require a little extra cushion to adjust to their new families. That is the reason for most women to quit their jobs after marriage. Even today, after marriage, handling the house becomes the primary responsibility of the woman and then whatever happens in the house is considered as her success or failure. 

During motherhood, at least till the child is a year old, they require full attention of their mother. Hence, flexible working hours and good crèches in the office can make life much easier for new moms. I don’t think these are extra privileges, these are mandatory for women to achieve their career goals.”

An expert in mental health, HR, education and business upliftment, Dr Prakriti Poddar, director of Poddar Wellness Ltd, and managing trustee of Poddar Foundation, took a sabbatical to have her kids, and when she came back to work, she had an interesting insight. “What I find incredibly challenging is how most establishments don’t understand the kind of learning that women have when they enter motherhood, and how this learning can be added to their management skills when they come back to the organisation. Once at an interview, I was asked about the gap in my work experience, and I said that I was having kids, and learning and enhancing my management skills at a mother’s level,” says she. “Motherhood teaches you a whole new set of skills and it should be treated as a pro rather than a con. Even older women, in their 40s, are more capable of making correct decisions based on their managerial skills, empathy and their ability to diagnose the situation more appropriately.” 

We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man
— Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at a Ted Talk. 

Today, terms like working woman or working mom should be redundant. Women make up roughly half of the working population, but it is still an uphill battle, and to really paint a picture for you, there is lava pouring down, aliens attacking from above and zombies grabbing their ankles from the ground. While it might seem absolutely ridiculous today, but there still are situations where women in the workplace, specially those in top level management, have a hard time trying to be taken seriously. Fragile male egos get hurt when taking orders from a woman, even in the smallest, most insignificant ways. 

Poddar has faced this subtle discrimination many a times when she visits other companies for conferences and such. “You may be the seniormost person in the organisation, but if a man is present, the male counterparts from other companies will automatically assume that he is the boss and start talking to him. I like to ruffle feathers when this happens, so I step up and ask them why would they assume such a thing. Sometimes, it’s the simple case of gender bias, and other times, I’ve been told that they feel embarrassed to talk to a woman and are more comfortable talking to a man,” she says.  

Mishra too has experienced the fact that men usually have issues accepting a female  boss, and even though they might sweep their dissatisfaction under the carpet to hide it from the world, they tend to act out in different ways. “I faced this in the initial phase of my leadership role — rejection, opposition, uncalled-for commentary and so on. But the best answer to these kind of people is your performance. You should shut down these kinds of people by outperforming your roles and proving them wrong,” she says. 

Ratna Chadha, co-founder and chairperson, TIRUN, the exclusive India representative for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, talks from having an experience of over 25 years in an industry where women are few and far between. “A woman boss needs to tread carefully as she could also have other women with fragile egos gunning for her. A female leader needs to be strong and fortified from all fragilities. While no situation is ideal, being a boss in itself shows a person’s strength and fortitude and helps overcome such situations,” she says. 

Incredible things happen when women support each other — this is not just a quote you put up on social media on Women’s Day, but it’s a fact. Chadha says, “I do believe this. In fact, in my previous role, I got a large corporate to change their rules and policies for maternity leave for mothers with adopted children. The biggest learning here is that you should put yourself in other’s shoes and then treat them like you would want to be treated,” she says.

She claims that the women working in her company have equal opportunity to enhance their careers, just like the men. “In fact, the women get enhanced benefits as they tend to shoulder greater responsibility at home and therefore, need greater considerations but with equal opportunity. The onus is on women to choose their career path based on family priorities,” she says. 

Poddar recognises that women have to put in extra hard work to be noticed in the workplace. “A lot of women put their work ahead of their personal lives, but they are forced to do so in a much more aggressive manner than a man. It is sad that women still have to go out of their way to prove that they are as serious about their career as men,” she says, adding, “We encourage them to take their holidays and when we talk of gender equality in the workplace, we also talk of gender equity which is an important issue,” says Poddar.

Mishra believes it is paramount for women to support women, in the workplace and otherwise. “But more often than not, it’s the other way round. I sometimes wonder why do women compete with each other and not with their male counterparts? I have always stepped up for everyone who required my support, not just with their professional roles but also their personal ones. To an extent that my colleagues say that my designation should ideally be VP-Chief counsellor! My guiding force has been my late father who came from a matriarchal society. This is why the respect to women is imbibed deep within. When someone makes you believe in yourself during the darkest times, then you can revive with the best version of yourself. Women must do that for each other,” says Mishra.

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