We can only wonder how many pregnant women in India are grounded by agents of society, their health ruined by lack of activity, spirits dampened by cliches, and their careers written off by narrow-minded employers
It starts with timing. First marriage then pregnancy is how we must do it in India. In urban Indian households, being an unwed mother is still considered a matter of great shame, and in rural India, she is most likely to be killed. There is no legal basis to this stigma, and it is despite a landmark Supreme Court of India judgement in July 2015 that upheld the right of an unwed mother to apply for sole guardianship of her minor son.
Next come the unfounded myths surrounding pregnancy. Well-qualified doctors here offer the most unscientific advice to healthy pregnant women, asking them to be inactive, overeat, and abstain completely from exercise and sex. Once again, there is no law whatsoever in India that restricts a pregnant woman’s free movement, yet stereotypes, patriarchal attitudes, and prejudices limit her participation in social life.
As an example, my husband and I are excited to be expecting our first child. We apparently got the timing of pregnancy versus marriage ‘wrong’. Then at our first gynecologic visit to a well-established clinic located in the posh Khan Market area of Central Delhi, we were told that I must lay in bed for all subsequent nine months. And later one evening at a bar located in Delhi’s modern boutique hotel, The Lodhi, I was stopped short by the bouncer at the door who held me by the elbow to take me aside and inform me that pregnant women were not allowed to enter. I was accompanied by my husband and a friend; the bar was not crowded and the music had stopped playing as well; and there was no law in India nor any hotel policy that supported the bouncer’s objection, but — as the bouncer later agreed — his own prejudice of how pregnant women should conduct themselves.
In the final trimester of pregnancy, I have discovered more biases, now from employers other than mine. Earlier this year, the Maternity Benefit Amendment Act of India increased paid leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for women working at companies with at least 10 employees. Denying a woman maternity leave is, therefore, illegal in India. But the reality is that a pregnant woman and thereafter a young mother is mistakenly considered by employers to be at half her productivity levels at work. It is common practice in some Indian companies to fire a pregnant woman on the pretext of incompetency — if a woman protests, she is told that she is drawing up a false case of victimisation.
In other cases, she is often asked to go on an unsalaried break during pregnancy that must continue until the end of the six-month maternity period — else she risks losing her job altogether. The practice is more common amongst companies with poor corporate governance and start-ups, whose management would go to any extent to avoid paying a woman perceived to be at half her steam.
One of the reasons for this travesty is the male-dominated top management in most leading Indian corporations. In a country ridden with poor corporate governance anyway, only 14 per cent women make it to any considerable levels of seniority in corporate jobs in India; women occupy just 12.4 per cent of board seats, and only 3.2 per cent women reach top leadership roles that hold board chairs. In an all-male decision making panel — which is then subsequently often the case — there is lack of experience and therefore low confidence in the power and capability of a woman working and contributing to the organisation during every stage in her life.
The second reason for pregnancy discrimination is the deep rooted patriarchal mindset which conquers any number of progressive laws for women in India. It is likely that an employer (or for that matter a medical practitioner or a bouncer at a bar) is accustomed to certain stereotypes of women, and considers it appropriate to enforce personal beliefs regarding what a woman should or should not do, including drawing judgements on what would be good for her health. Personal bias against women in India rules over science, fact, and legal entitlements.
The third reason is financial. Corporations try to wriggle out of the expense of paying a salary to a mother nursing her child at home. For a loss-making company, the temptation is even stronger to bully a woman into forsaking her rightful entitlements.
A woman is most vulnerable emotionally when she is pregnant, and a woman who has been financially independent all her life needs the safety net of a salary more than ever during this time. With her doctor’s permission, she is certainly physically capable of contributing to an organisation during her pregnancy. Two month pregnant Serena Williams won the Australian Open this year (and has delivered a healthy baby this week); during the same time, seven month pregnant Beatie Deutsch finished faster than the average runner at the Tel Aviv marathon; and in the United States, 82 per cent of women employees pregnant with their first child usually continue to work until they were close to their due date. But in India, a country where law enforcement is weak, supporting a pregnant woman and mother is up to the employer’s discretion. For this reason amongst others, between 2004 and 2011, while the economy grew at around 7 per cent, the female participation in the country’s labour force declined from over 35 per cent to 25 per cent.
I am lucky to be in a position of power in a progressive company, led by Naveen Jindal who himself is young, open minded, and supports diversity. As a public speaker and writer, I can also easily speak out and be heard if I experience or witness discrimination. But not everyone is so fortunate. We can only wonder how many pregnant women in India are grounded by the agents of society, their health ruined by lack of activity, spirits dampened by cliches, and their careers written off by narrow-minded employers.
Going forward, we need to scan and collect solid data on companies practising pregnancy discrimination — this we do not yet have, firstly because the women targeted do not lodge formal complaints because they fear nothing constructive will come out of it, and secondly the issue is considered too ‘soft’ to be addressed by media and policy research. Further, in Indian corporations, strong sponsorship for women employees from top level management, and not just policy alone, can instigate change. For the rest of society to alter its perception about pregnancy, the media can at least begin the transformative process by being less preoccupied with the lives of elites and issues that become sudden scapegoats of media hysteria, and instead consistently raise such real issues that confront 48.5 per cent of ordinary Indian citizens.
The writer is Chief Sustainability Officer for the group of companies, Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. She is a Global Leadership Alumna of the World Economic Forum. firstname.lastname@example.org
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