Niranjan (last name withheld on request), a product marketer for a software company, had his child on a Friday, the following Monday, he was back at work. At one of the most crucial points of their new child’s life, Indian fathers are finding it difficult to manage work and life expectations.
In India, there is no formal mandate for paternity leave for the private sector while the Maternity Benefit Act states that new mothers are entitled to six months of paid leave. However, Central Government employees are entitled to 15 days of paternity leave, also in cases where a child has been adopted.
This allows companies to formulate their own policies. Standard Chartered offers new fathers 20 weeks, Pfizer offers up to 12 weeks whereas many other companies have no such policy in place which leaves much room for ambiguity. Earlier this year when cricketer Jasprit Bumrah left the Asian Cup to attend the birth of his child, he faced severe criticism online. This was also a reflection of the sentiment that many fans had when Virat Kohli took paternity leave in 2020 as well. However, is the stigma attached to paternity leave preventing men from availing it?
Paternity leave is not a single block
Harshal Desai, who works in the entertainment industry says that the stigma is not the issue, the length and flexibility of the available leaves is. This sentiment is also shared by Niranjan who told us that his organization offered 2 cycles of 10 days off, but only up for the first six months.
As is the norm, most new parents will often have one set of their parents or both at hand to help out, especially after the birth. Both Niranjan and Harshal said that they had 2-3 grandparents around to lend a hand immediately after the birth. However, as the child grows older, they may not always be at hand. “Giving leave only up to six months feels like a sham,” comments Niranjan. He feels it would be far more useful to allow greater flexibility for employees to choose how and when they’d like to take their time off. “So if we could work for 3 days, then days 2 days off in a week, or work for fewer hours a day instead of full days off, that would be more useful,” he adds. Currently working from home allows him to spend more time with his child, but this is not the case for all fathers.
A 2023 study on the need for paternity leave for private employees in India also reflects that 86% of the respondents felt that paternity leave must be made mandatory. In 2017, the Paternity Benefit Bill proposed up to 3 months of paid leave, however, it is yet to come into force.
No longer a benefit; but a necessity
K Subramanian, Senior Director, HR at Ola Electric shared that currently, the company provides 5 working days of paternity leave for new fathers. Reflecting on his experience over the last few decades, he noted that there has been a significant change in the way paternity leave is being viewed. “Earlier, raising the child was just seen as a mother’s responsibility, today fathers play an active role,” he says. Men are now much more comfortable taking their paternity leave as there is a “sense of joy,” he adds.
Subramanian highlighted that paternity leave should no longer be seen as a benefit since it is essential. “How do we raise the next workforce, if we don’t allow people to raise their families?” he asks. He remarks that larger, more established organisations find it easier to have more generous family leave policies and provide the necessary work-life balance. However, in startups where teams are leaner, employees are juggling multiple roles so that buffer might be more limited in comparison.
Women speak up
Aarthi Sivaramakrishnan, who has worked extensively in DEI, is among the people who are trying to push companies to create more equitable policies. “We need to advocate for equal maternal and paternal leave as parental leave to break the stigma,” she explains. Currently, there is a strong push to increase maternity leave to up to a year, but Sivaramakrishnan underlines that such a disparity puts the onus back on women to take up the majority of the caregiving work.
Companies often push back on longer parental leaves citing the long gap and loss of work hours but she explains that parental leave is “the most planned form of leave,” where the employee and the organisation have at least 8-9 months to prepare adequately.
Speaking of her own experience, Sivaramakrishnan said that her husband had nearly 3.5 weeks of paternal leave when she gave birth 10 years ago. “It was almost unheard of at that time and it offered a lot of support.” Still, she feels that had he had 4-5 months, it would have helped them settle into their role as parents better.
She feels that now as work has become more flexible with hybrid options, fathers are able to spend some more time splitting the caregiving duties with mothers than in the past decades. Thus, the time is ripe to make that strong push for parental leave that is inclusive and gender-neutral, which can be availed by adoptive parents, queer parents and forge the way to removing the societal expectations of caregiving.
It’s 2023 and it is high time that non-birthing partners are also given the opportunity to bond with their children and support their partners. Having a disparity in the stipulated maternity and paternity leaves only further adds to the perception that childcare is only a mother’s duty.