Motherhood Is Kicking Indian Women Out of Work

A new act gives more maternity leave — and reinforces the same old patriarchal values.

A Kashmiri 'Anganwadi', a government sponsored child and mother care worker, kicks away a chili grenade thrown by Indian police during an anti-government protest in Srinagar on May 30, 2018.  (TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kashmiri 'Anganwadi', a government sponsored child and mother care worker, kicks away a chili grenade thrown by Indian police during an anti-government protest in Srinagar on May 30, 2018. (TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

American progressives often bemoan the country’s lack of maternity leave, but in India, the problem may be too much time off, not too little. As many as 12 million Indian women could lose their jobs next year thanks to a new law that mandates employers must allow 26 weeks paid time off after giving birth.

There have been worries about the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act since it was passed in March 2017, bumping paid leave up from the previous 12 weeks and making day care centers mandatory for companies with more than 50 employees.

Some saw this as a step forward for women’s rights. But a new survey by TeamLease, a payroll and human resources services company, claims that the act could lead to 2.6 percent of women’s jobs disappearing. The survey says that employers are less likely to hire women due to their concerns about the demands imposed by the act, especially at smaller companies.

These concerns may well be overrated. There were similar concerns when laws against workplace sexual harassment were passed. There’s no data to support whether these fears actually panned out, but this was a common refrain when the law was passed — that companies would stop hiring women because of the anti-harassment law. But this new law also reinforces the idea that child care is the responsibility of women alone — a belief that’s already making many educated Indian workers believe they have to choose between children and a career.

This is bad news for India, where already nearly 20 million women left the workforce between 2004 and 2012. In 2011, census data put the female labor force participation rate at 27 percent. This year, the annual economic survey conducted by the Ministry of Finance said it was just 24 percent — the worst in South Asia, and among the G-20 nations only beating Saudi Arabia.

Indian women’s shrinking involvement in the workforce at a time of declining fertility, rising educational attainment, and increasing economic growth has perplexed economists and policymakers. In April 2017, a World Bank report found the sharpest workforce participation drops among both illiterate women and India’s most educated women.

One of the main factors is what some economists call the motherhood penalty, which takes a particular toll on workforce participation of educated women. In March 2017, a World Bank policy paper by Maitreyi Bordia Das and Ieva Zumbyte, “The Motherhood Penalty and Female Employment in Urban India,” found that “having a young child in the home depresses mothers’ employment.”

It’s this motherhood penalty that results in India’s most educated women quitting jobs midway through their career. For instance, women make up 51 percent of all new recruits in the tech industry, but only 34 percent of all employees, according to a 2011 study by Nasscom, India’s largest trade body for tech.

India has one of the world’s largest gender gaps in unpaid care work. In November 2015, the McKinsey Global Institute found that women in India do 10 times as much unpaid care work than men, far above the global average of three times. No wonder then that at times of economic growth, when household incomes go up and paid work is no longer a survival imperative, India’s women are unwilling to shoulder the burden of extra work outside the home when they’re already worked to the bone inside it.

But men in the Asia-Pacific region are the worst in the world when it comes to shouldering some of the responsibility of unpaid care work, according to a recent release by the International Labour Organization (ILO), “Care Work and Care Jobs for the Future of Decent Work.” Pakistani men, on average, chip in with 28 minutes a day, and Indian men are only marginally better with 31 minutes a day, compared with the regional average of four hours and 22 minutes put in by women for similar work, the ILO report finds.

But care work is only one of the ways in which patriarchy imposes burdens on working women in India. The other way is by controlling and restricting women’s physical movement.

Rohini Pande, co-director of the Evidence for Policy Design Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, finds that social norms that restrict women’s mobility are one of the challenges women confront when they set out to find a job. Using government data she found, for instance, that 79.9 percent of women in India needed permission from husbands or other family members to visit a health center. “In the end, it’s pretty difficult to look for a job if you can’t leave the house alone,” she wrote.

Unlike men, women need to get an all-clear from their fathers, brothers, husbands, in-laws, or, sometimes, entire village councils before they can step out of their houses.

Social norms also dictate what work is appropriate for women. So nursing, teaching, and beauty work is considered acceptable, but jobs in hotels, where there is a demand for skilled female workers, is considered unacceptable because women might have to serve food to men in restaurants or enter their rooms for housekeeping. “Social norms often limit women’s opportunities to so-called traditional jobs, closely linked to typical ideas of what women can and cannot do,” Clement Chauvet, the chief of skills and business development at the United Nations Development Programme in India, told me when I researched the topic in a nationwide investigation for IndiaSpend.

Safety, infrastructure, and a lack of reliable and affordable public transportation are key issues for Indian women. In my IndiaSpend work I found that in one village in the state of Haryana, a woman who was hired to work in a factory in the summer quit by winter when the days became shorter and the walk back home alone from the bus stop became unsafe in the dark. In a slum in outer Delhi, women said they preferred low-paying jobs in factories close by because they just couldn’t afford the bus fare or deal with the commute time.

If the government wants to start breaking down the familial burdens placed on women, equalizing leave is a good place to start. “The law should entitle parents to shared leave, which can be split between a couple in the way they choose,” wrote feminist economist Mitali Nikore. Moreover, she advocates that the financial burden associated with the extended maternity leave should be split between employers and the government.

Indian workplaces are not just losing women because they are getting pregnant. They are losing women because society imprisons them in work that is unpaid, unrecognized, and unsung.

After all, if it takes a village to raise a child, why is it that only mothers bear the cost?


Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and author who writes a regular column for The Hindustan Times