Our society is bifurcated on the basis of sexual division of labour. We tend to view the world through the prism of gender binaries. Certain tasks are considered to be women’s, and certain others are considered to be men’s. Taking care of the home, cooking, cleaning, caring for ageing parents (often the men’s), looking after the kids (often referred to as belonging to the men – not women) are viewed as duties to be fulfilled by women. Men, on the other hand, are tasked with being breadwinners of the family.
Men go out and earn a living and women stay at home and provide care. In a society with such gender-specific division of labour, the task of raising children falls entirely on the shoulders of women. Men, they say, have little to contribute to the daunting chore of caring for a newborn. Take a look at the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) interactive map of the world that shows the duration of maternity leaves in different parts of the world.
One glance at the map is enough to know that most countries provide expecting mothers a few weeks to recuperate from childbirth and time to bond with and care for the newborn. However, take a look at ILO’s map that shows the duration of the paternity leaves in different parts of the world.
In this case, one glance is enough to know that maximum countries in the world, including India, do not provide adequate paternity leaves. This statistic is not surprising because such gendered notions of the division of labour have been driving public policy for generations.
“The sexual division of labour has serious implications for the role of women as citizens, because every woman’s horizons are limited by these supposedly primary responsibilities,” writes Nivedita Menon in her book ‘Seeing Like a Feminist.’
She further adds, “Whether in their choice of career, or their ability to participate in politics, women learn to limit their ambitions. This self-limitation is what produces the glass ceiling; or the mommy track, the slower career track upwards, while women put aside some of the most productive years of their lives to look after children.”
All this while, it is conveniently forgotten that child-rearing is the responsibility of both the parents – the mother and the father. Since women’s labour is largely unpaid, it has harboured a notion that women’s work is less valuable than men’s work which results in wage discrimination (meaning women are paid less as compared to men for the same kind of work). However, less wages for women also means less income for the family. This means that there is more pressure on men to earn more and more panic for the household if the man loses his job. There is also more pressure on men not to take career breaks, no matter how desperately they want it. This is mainly because they are considered as the sole breadwinners of the household. Gendered notions of labour are profoundly detrimental not just to women but men as well.
They result in ridicule for men who do take career breaks for their newborns or any other reason, while their wives take over the role of a breadwinner in the household.
In its study titled, Maternity and Paternity at Work, the ILO states that ‘Research suggests that fathers’ leave, men’s take-up of family responsibilities, and child development are related’. Fathers who take leave, especially those taking two weeks or more immediately after childbirth, are more likely to be involved with their young children. This is likely to have positive effects on gender equality at home, which is the foundation of gender equality at work.
Drawing fathers into the daily realities of childcare, free of workplace constraints, extended time-off (immediately after the birth) provides the space necessary for fathers to develop the parenting skills and sense of responsibility, This, in turn, allows them to be active co-parents rather than helpers to their female partners. This shift from a manager-helper dynamic to that of co-parenting creates the opportunity for the development of a more gender-equitable division of labour.
So, in a society where these gender-assigned duties are being challenged on an everyday basis and where the word gender itself is being redefined, it is important that legislation catch up.
Rajeev Satav, Shiv Sena MP from Hingoli in Maharashtra, has recently introduced a Private Member’s Bill, named the Paternity Benefits Bill, in the Parliament. The Bill hopes to introduce legislation that makes it mandatory for the public and private sectors to provide paternity leaves to expecting fathers.
The benefits of such a policy are manifold. It will help bring about a shift in the notions of gender-assigned labour by challenging the assumption that childcare is exclusively a woman’s job. Apart from helping somewhat to retain an ever declining female workforce, it will also give men a chance to bond with their newborns. Innumerable studies have proven the positive effects of an early father-child bonding experience, which can be facilitated through such a leave policy.
Of course, ensuring availability of paid paternity leaves is not going to be enough since the culture of fathers taking up the responsibilities of child-rearing and stepping up to undertake parenting duties is largely non-existent. One can almost forgive Maneka Gandhi’s scepticism when she declared that paid paternity leaves would only mean additional vacation time for fathers. Attitude adjustment in the cultural norms of Indian society is urgently required. Men, too, need to join women in demanding paternity leaves. It would go a long way in supporting their spouses’ careers and will help level out somewhat the discrimination that women face in the workplace.
Passing the bill is important because it paves the way towards a policy-based approach towards resolving society’s discriminatory attitude towards women. Behavioural changes in society do not happen automatically. They happen slowly, gradually through community-based action and governmental reforms. This bill is taking a step forward and starting a much-needed conversation about the roles of men and women in society. And by starting this conversation, we can finally start addressing the stereotypical notions that surround women’s and for that matter men’s labour in society.