Babies in the time of Flipkart

Every day, on social media and often, in real life, I interact with several mothers, thanks to my blog and columns on parenting. Most of them are clever, bright, funny, passionate, feminist, zesty, have very clear views on politics and the economy, know their films, know their books, know their children and are hugely resourceful and enterprising. A few have real ‘jobs’, but most are winging it as food bloggers, book reviewers, children’s activity conductors, dress designers, script writers, home bakers, freelance journalists, trainers and teachers.

At some point, all of them had formal jobs, jobs they were good at, jobs they tried hard to keep, but sooner or later, gave up, in pursuit of work-life balance (read: raising children). I am sure they all gave their best shot at having it all, before they redefined their ‘all’.

Six years into motherhood, one attempt at going back to the race (when my child was 4), one attempt at running away to a hill with my child to teach in a school (so I have daycare sorted), and I am still figuring out how to wing it.

The question always is: What if?

What if all these women, me included, had employers who were empathetic about their post-child status, what if their HR departments had policies that were more flexible, what if they all had access to the most phenomenal day care. Would they still be doing what they are doing?

I had heard, of course, that a few corporates, IT companies, banks and NGOs were sympathetic to this transition and did offer extended leave, sabbaticals, flexitime options, consultancy options and even day-care facilities. But by and large, women had come to terms with the fact that there were compromises post baby and putting career on hold is probably one of them.

One mother I knew, who quit her job as COO of a bank soon after the baby, was magnanimous enough to say that she didn’t expect the organisation to make those compromises for her, nor did she expect to be paid for having a child. I was shocked at the lack of dissent.

Yes, there was a murmur about ‘working from home’, but I had to yet see a respectable organization putting it into practice or paying fairly for it. ‘Flexitime’ was a euphemism for ‘this job is so dull, you may want to throw up’.

Through Talking Tours, a Times of India initiative to get women back to the ramp, I travelled a great deal in 2013-14, meeting hundreds of women from various cities in India, who had been derailed from the workplace because of babydom. Every single one of them cited harsh company policies that eventually shafted them from the workplace.

Enter Flipkart.

This online retailer announced on Monday that it will now offer six months paid leave plus four months of flexible working option with pay to mothers. Above this, it is also offering an extended maternity leave of up to 1 year of career break without pay, after which they can return to available jobs at that point of time.

Among other benefits that are also a part of the new package, women get a transport reimbursement benefit of Rs 600 per day during the last two months of pregnancy. Women are also entitled to a reserved parking slot for 2 months before and after child delivery. Flipkart is also working on a proposal to pay 50% of day care charges at high-standard facilities for children up to 4 years of age.

Is this for real? Where were they when I could have used them?

The Indian Labour Law prescribes a compulsory paid maternity leave of twelve weeks to all female employees. No company is liable to offer anything more. In this context, Flipkart’s move is unprecedented. “Flipkart needs to be able to attract more women talent,” Deepali Tamhane, senior director, product management, said in an interaction with the media, explaining the announcement.

Good on you, I wanted to cheer from the wings.

Others were soon to follow. Samsung electronics which has a 42 % female work force, has plans to allow female workers two years’ paid maternity leave as opposed to one that they currently offer. The move was an effort to support prospective moms, as a Samsung official said on Sunday.

Earlier in March this year, Vodafone offered global maternity equality. Their new policy includes a minimum of 16 weeks fully-paid maternity leave. It was a strategic move to cut the costs incurred when women employees leave to have children. “There are a lot of hidden costs when you lose women to maternity: retraining, recruiting, business disruption,” said Sharon Doherty, the group’s Organisation and People Development Director, who developed the policy.

Virgin Atlantic went further: new dads will be given up to a year’s paternity leave on full salary as part of a new policy unveiled by Richard Branson.

Nice, I thought. It’s time we noticed that fathers make babies too.

In January, You Tube CEO Susan Wojcicki – who believes that maternity leave is good for mothers, babies and business – announced an 18-week fully-paid maternity leave policy. Mothers, she believes, come back to the workforce with newer insights post a longer break.

But elsewhere, companies still have an all-or-none policy and are largely unwilling to negotiate working terms for a new mother. I know several women who were forced to quit as a result of this. It is as though organisations do not want to acknowledge the logistics that comes with motherhood; it is treated as a sort of exotic inconvenience and they would rather you deal with it separately from work.

Just before I went on maternity leave at one of India’s largest media houses where I had been working for three and a half years, I had a glimpse into my future at work. A new mommy returned after her three-month maternity leave, hoping to get an extension. She was in for a rude shock when she was told that it wouldn’t be possible, neither was flexitime an option. It was all or none. Since she was still in her postpartum melancholia, and hadn’t yet figured out baby-care and other such, she did the first thing that came to her mind – she quit. Two months later, the same thing happened to another mom.

We don’t want to set a precedent,’ both were told, although the nature of their jobs could have easily allowed flexitime. It conjured up images of all the women in the organisation thronging to claim maternity perks.

How a company with a fifty percent female workforce had no contingency plan for new mothers was difficult to digest. Like it was some natural calamity they were totally unprepared for. No matter how resilient you are, most women are in shock at the callousness at work on returning from their maternity leave. In several subtle and not-so-subtle ways, being pregnant at the workplace seems to indicate that you no longer ‘count’, that you are now just someone who is ‘passing through’, that you may or may not continue working, that you might be ‘too preoccupied with baby thoughts’ to focus on your career. What you don’t realise is that right from the time you were pregnant, the tone for your eventual marginalisation has been set.

Incidentally, when I returned from my 12-week maternity leave, I was at first shocked, and then relieved to find out that I had been transferred from a pivotal role with one section of the paper to a not-so-pivotal one in another section, a fact told to me rather casually on the phone by the HR department a few days before resuming work. My new boss was clearly not happy to see me; evidently she had no say in the matter of my transfer. ‘So why did you opt for this section?’ she asked.

‘I didn’t,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t asked, I was told.’

It was not a great way to begin.

She asked me nothing about the baby, how I was doing, or coping. Instead, she said, ‘I actually thought you wouldn’t come back. I stayed home for eight years after my daughter was born. Do you really need the job?’

It was not the greatest welcome back line, but I swallowed it.

Six months later, I quit.

Antara, a friend of mine pointed out that by spending time rearing her child, a mother is actually contributing to the country’s GDP, because it is these children who will add to the productivity of the nation. Turns out my company didn’t get the memo on this.

KPMG recently did a study about the positive economic impact of giving more maternity benefits. According to them, the costs of a more generous maternity provision were outweighed by the costs of replacing women leaving the workforce. I used to often wonder why couldn’t companies factor in motherhood when hiring women and have policies laid down so that it’s not a case-to-case negotiation with one’s superior? Why can’t pregnancy and motherhood be treated as a natural phase of a working woman’s life? It’s not like having a child is a sort of hobby or incurable disease the woman has suddenly developed.

Things are looking brighter with all these announcements and I do hope it makes smart, successful women reconsider their position vis-à-vis having children.

My friend Rebecca and I were having a chat a few weeks ago about babies. She is 32, has been married for 8 years and the pressure to have a baby is high. But she is in a great place in her life, having just taken up an entrepreneurial venture and flying high with it. From being the eager one in the duo to have a baby, she is now unsure and turned to me for advice. I found myself telling her, “First, you have to find a really sexy way to stay relevant. And it can’t be cupcakes.”

Now, it seems, there is Flipkart.

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