Flexible working is often frowned upon by the managers in organisations.
A change in the maternity leave policy meant that Vanita Singhal, a 34 year-old-banker got maternity leave for 26 weeks. She also had an option to work from home for another few months.
However, this process was more challenging than she had imagined. The flexi-working policy, post the maternity leave, existed only on paper. While working from home, she was not allowed to step away from the computer for even 10 minutes. If she did, she would be logged out of work and marked absent for the day.
Worse still, her performance during this period was not even considered for the appraisals.
Singhal was forced to work from home because her employer did not have any crèche facilities. To make things tougher, she had to spend three hours daily commuting to and from her office.
Only on paper
Flexible benefits and work-from-home facilities are present across companies on paper. But in reality, the situation is different. Women who avail of work-from-home, are neglected for performance appraisals.
The tough environment is just one more aspect of the low female labour participation rate in India. The country has among the lowest rates of female workforce in the world. In sectors like manufacturing and engineering, it drops even further.
Saundarya Rajesh, Founder-President of HR firm AVTAR Group, said that flexible working as a concept is only 10 years old in India. "Flexible working is the most important determinant in women's workforce participation. Progressive organisations offer flexible working as a part of their ethos." AVTAR helps women an opportunity to rejoin the workforce.
However, she said that in the manufacturing space and medium-sized enterprises, the topic around flexi working is still nascent. "Companies need to trust the employee and the woman also should have a sense of ownership for the work," she added.
According to a 2017 World Bank report, less than a third (27 percent) of women who are 15 years or older are working or actively looking for a job. Three of every five prime working age Indian women (26-45 years) are not economically active, meaning that they are neither working on a farm, or in businesses, and nor are they earning any wage.
The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017 made it mandatory for companies to give 26 weeks of maternity leave to women. The law allows a woman to opt for flexi hours and work from home, and this is over and above the mandatory maternity leave.
However, something that was to benefit women, has now gone against them. Now, less number of women are being hired among smaller companies. Even those who are hired have tough working conditions.
A Mumbai-based law firm is advising another client working with an engineering firm, who had taken 'fertility leaves' when she was trying to conceive. The company not just removed her from an important project for taking the leave, but also transferred her to a remote location. While the company policy did allow this leave, nobody had taken it before.
Legally, all companies provide maternity leaves. But sectors like aviation and the entertainment contractually prohibit their female employees from getting pregnant or seeking leave for childcare.
A recent case involved a television actress being removed from a comedy programme after she took five months of maternity leave. While she was ready to renew the contract, the production house did not pay heed to her demand.
Six to eight months after a child is born, vaccinations and regular health checkups dominate. During this period, while companies often claim to provide leaves and flexi work hours to new mothers, there is clear discrimination.
HR officials said that they often resort to either hiring older women or unmarried women, to prevent any short-term disruptions to the workflow.
Globally, there is a lot of hand-holding that is done of expectant mothers in companies. From the time a woman goes on maternity leave till the time she comes back to the organisation, the human resource managers keep in touch to ensure that her needs are taken care of. Further, a smoother process of helping a returning mother adapt to the work environment is also an area that is taken care of.
The head of human resources for a mid-sized IT sector firm said that for a certain set of job roles, flexible work hours may not be possible.
"If it is a client-facing role, we have frequent face-to-face meetings in a week. Working from home cannot be provided for women. If a request comes in, they will be required to move to another job role," said the person quoted above.
This is true for frontline sales staff across companies as well as branch banking roles. Similarly, for sectors like aviation and logistics, physical presence in the workplace is important for the job role.
Newer concepts like 'period leave ' or lighter work days for women during their monthly menstrual cycle are also gaining traction globally. In India, however, it is restricted to less than 10 companies for what HR officials call 'fear of misuse'.
Rituparna Chakraborty, Executive Vice President, TeamLease Services said that in small and mid-sized organisations and to families there is a challenge when it comes to offering flexi working.
"When it comes to smaller companies, they are primarily looking to survive in the competitive market. Hence, offering flexible work conditions and increasing gender diversity may not be on top of their mind. But there is more openness among larger professionally managed companies."
At this juncture, HR officials say that making it legally binding on companies to offer flexible working to women could defeat the whole purpose. While women would be even less hired, it would be difficult to track the implementation of the law.
Having crèche facilities within the work premises could be one change that could lead to more number of women returning to the workplace. Another area of improvement, said HR experts, is the work-from-home component in the leave policy.Rajesh said that there is still a lot of work left to be done in smaller companies. Offering the space and the trust to women in companies is the first step to getting more women into the workplace, according to her.