Written by: Diya Maria Abraham
India, now in the throes of the second wave of the deadly coronavirus has extended the long spell of work-from-home (WFH) for those in the formal workforce. Most people are experiencing fatigue, especially women who work full-time and have children and additional caregiving responsibilities. Before the pandemic, the domestic worker would help with chores around the house, the after-school daycare would ensure small are taken care of, and the mothers also had the option to ask the grandparents for help. The pandemic has made outsourcing care work really difficult.
“Balancing household chores, spending time with my family, homeschooling my kids, my profession and its added responsibilities have been painstaking, energy-draining and extremely hectic in this period,” says Dr. Varsha, a working mother.
In a country with no formal paternity leave policy, where gendered differences are deeply entrenched, women, especially, mothers are seen as the primary caregivers for both adults and children. Such a situation is likely to push women to make difficult choices. But what can companies to do retain their female workforce?
A working paper from Azim Premji University highlights that women in India are seven times more likely to lose work during the national lockdown and 11 times more likely to not return to work after a job loss. This can be corroborated by looking at CMIE data which shows that the employment rate of women in urban areas fell from 7.5% before the pandemic to 5.4% in February 2021.
This article will make a case for increased paternity leave and will look at how companies can retain their female employees and create a culture where care responsibilities are shared by both partners equally, irrespective of their gender.
A way to formally divide care responsibilities between working partners is to institute paid paternity leave. While many argue that it is economically not feasible to have such a policy, many case studies and working policies have proved that they are not only possible, but the benefits of family-friendly policies extend beyond the personal and positively impact the workplace.
According to an analysis undertaken for the World Bank Group’s 2019 Women, Business, and the Law Report, only 90 out of 187 countries (48 percent) provide any paid paternity leave that a new father can take as a matter of national policy. These provisions usually do not extend for more than a few days at a time. The only notable change comes from OECD countries where men’s use of parental leave is seen to be increasing, although the number of days taken continues to be very minimal. How can the situation improve?
Women have been traditionally seen to drop out of the corporate rat race during the ‘messy middle.’ This is described as that period where responsibilities at home and work dramatically increase.
To counter this disproportionate increase in workload, the constitution of non-transferable and paid parental leave for fathers is necessary. This would help in greater retention of female employees and ensure their promotion to higher levels. These designated leaves, sometimes referred to as ‘daddy days’ have been adopted in Iceland, Sweden, and Korea, which saw a doubling of parental leaves taken by men.
Such a system coupled with adequate time off and flexible working hours seems to be the most effective in encouraging fathers to take the leave and in supporting families with a greater division of care work.
Patriarchal gender roles create workplace pressure and stigma over fathers taking time off for parental responsibilities. A significant way to counter this is by incentivizing them with an adequate pay replacement.
The best available research evidence suggests that a wage replacement rate (a percentage of the total wage would be paid by the employer or through other schemes) of at least 80% is needed to address poverty and promote gender equality in leave-taking. The recommended time period, according to UNICEF, is 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, and at least six months of paid maternity, paternity, and parental leave after the birth of the child.
The report by the World Policy Analysis Centre on paid parental leave in OECD countries strongly suggests that making at least six months of paid parental leave to both parents is economically feasible, showing no differences in the unemployment rate or evident decreases in GDP growth.
Most countries provide paid leave through social security schemes that rely on a mix of contributions from employers and employees, often with additional government funds. While it may be difficult for small businesses to self-insure paid parental leave, policies can be made affordable by requiring businesses to contribute only a small percentage of payroll to social security schemes.
Many companies such as IKEA work with a corporate social responsibility platform to implement family-friendly policies such as housing and access to school for the children of migrant workers who work them. Netflix now allows working fathers to take unlimited leaves during the first year after a child is born or adopted. Facebook, eBay, and Amazon now offer four months, 12 weeks, and six weeks of paid paternity leave, respectively. Businesses are more accountable than ever for their impact on communities. Reinforcing gender stereotypes and creating family-friendly policies is a big part of their role in upholding diversity and inclusion.
The individual and social benefits of having fathers involved in care work have been written about in great detail. These include being engaged in their kids’ lives, improved physical, mental, and sexual well-being, fewer chances of domestic violence, and even increasing women’s pay and chances of hierarchical positions. It establishes the parental role and family dynamics from the get-go, important for strengthening relationships and acting as role models for their children.
In this context, it is necessary to highlight the several organizational benefits that a paid paternity leave policy could bring about and why companies should take the initiative in the absence of a government-mandated structure.
In pursuit of acquiring highly skilled workers, workplace policy and environment have become important markers that candidates examine before accepting jobs. One company communicated that “It is a strategy in a ‘battle of talents’, where we need to offer the most attractive practices to employ highly skilled workers.” Creating a family-friendly and gender-equal environment not only helps in hiring skilled workers but also retaining them in the longer run. It is also more economical to retain skilled workers well-versed in company history and practices as investing in developed human capital will help save on resources and time.
Many employers also recognized that their employees’ well-being is a strong factor for improved productivity. Millennials, who take on a more active role in care work, are seen to be demanding better work/life balance from their employers as many reports facing performance challenges and health problems early on in their careers. A company that advertises itself as being a safe space and encouraging a healthy work-life balance will be attractive for many and also act as a supportive space for young working parents.
“We are convinced that when our people are happy with their children and with their families and are safe, productivity increases and they are focused on the job, which is their second home, where they spend a majority of their time.” – Luis Aguirre, President, Index Mexico.
Companies are increasingly conscious of their public image and how consumers and potential employees perceive their brands. To appeal to their consumers, businesses may find that family-friendly policies are important marketing strategies for brand alignment with products and brands targeting children or families. Responsible companies understand that minimizing environmental risks and waste costs are not enough. The need to comply with labor standards, ensure proper working standards and benefits is ethically right and adds to long-term value creation, and greatly influences consumer choices.
Many businesses, especially those in traditionally male-dominated sectors such as IT and engineering, emphasized the need to implement family-friendly policies to boost workforce diversity and allow for gender inclusivity. Such company policies must be inclusive and accessible to all parents irrespective of their sexual orientation and relationship status. Granting extended leave and support to cases requiring special attention (disability, prematurity, a health condition or multiple births, etc.), in adoption cases, for treatments of assisted fertilization, in cases of gender violence, or to same-sex couples should also be considered.
McKinsey, in its 2021 survey, noted the importance given by employees to a work culture that encouraged taking leave, policy support from their employers, and an unaffected promotion timeline. These conditions are possible only in an environment wherein paternity leave is not looked down upon but encouraged as a necessity. This can be brought through awareness programs and most effectively through managers taking paternity leave and demonstrating that there would not be any negative consequences.
Such an environment would also practice in a bias-free hiring practice as both men and women would take leave for care duties and make the workplace less subject to casual sexism and gender discrimination.
The inclusion of a paid paternity leave policy can only yield true benefits with the support of government policy and the affordable and accessible care industry. While this is lacking in our country, companies can take the first step by initiating family-friendly policies in the workplace and contributing to creating a society free from gender bias.
About the author: Diya is an undergraduate student at St. Stephen’s College. Her interests include socio-legal research and criminal justice.
All images have been used for representation only.