Listen up! Mum Needs Time Off To Spend Time With New Baby

By Suneeti Ahuja Kohli Khaleej Times, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Suneeti Ahuja Kohli makes the case for why there needs to be more support from societies and governments at large that expect women to lead.

Khaleej Times, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The debate whether women can have it all is an age old one. While the percentage of women with college degrees is on the rise globally, their strength in the workforce and governments worldwide isn't that impressive.

Women make up 39 per cent of the global workforce. Their representation in governments is even slimmer at just 22 per cent. As of January 2017, 10 women serve as heads of state and nine as heads of government.

It's not that there is a dearth of capable and ambitious women. No. It's also not about opportunity, or the lack of it. The core issue is the paucity of support from societies and governments at large that expect women to lead on personal and professional fronts, but fail to equip them with the right kind of support structure.

Stereotyping of roles, too, hasn't helped much. Women are seen as primary caregivers, which is why many struggle to walk the tightrope of managing responsibilities at home and work, and eventually choose playrooms over boardrooms.

A comfortable, long maternity leave could offer some succour. It should be, in fact, a basic right for any working woman. Yet, it remains a pipe dream in many countries. In the US, for instance, there is no provision for paid maternity leave.

The Family Leave and Medical Act there only ensures that eligible women don't lose their jobs, if they take up to 12 weeks off after having a child. Trump might change that for good, but for now, it is a non-issue. What is this, if not discrimination against women?

In the UAE, women fare a tad better with a 45-day paid maternity leave, and a provision to take up to 100 days of unpaid leave during or after pregnancy. But frankly, even that is not enough. Women in the private sector ideally should get at least three months off, if not more, to take care of the new born.

Missing out on the formative years of the child is not in the best interest of either the parent or the child. Women in government service and DIFC get a sweeter deal. Government staff get three months off with full pay, and women in DIFC get 65 working days off, which is about six months (full pay for 33 working days of leave and 50 per cent of the normal wage for the next 32).

"I was doing well, working as a senior trainer with an IT firm in Dubai," said a 32-year-old mum based in Dubai who didn't want to be named. "But I had to quit after my delivery to take care of my newborn. Keeping a nanny or sending her to daycare while I worked for seven-to-eight hours was a strict no-no. My husband was against the idea, so I had to quit." She told Khaleej Times, "Ideally, firms should give a year off, paid or unpaid, for mothers."

For many ambitious women, it is a harrowing journey from being successful to feeling like they don't belong. The problem isn't just of absence from work, but the discriminatory attitude of people, says Swati Harmilapi Menon, a Mumbai-based mother of one. "I took about a year's leave from work. Almost four months was paid for, the rest was unpaid. But I wasn't eligible for appraisal, despite being one of the top performers in the company. The management thought I wouldn't resume work, and saw no need to appraise me for the work I had already done for them."

Swati could manage a year's leave, but it isn't always that easy. Firstly, firms aren't that generous in doling out such long leaves of absence and secondly, in case of many new mothers, there is a nagging fear: what if they're replaced by someone else? Many are forced to resume work too soon for financial reasons, too.

"It's a catch-22 situation most of the time. You feel guilty if you join soon, and fearful if you somehow manage to secure long leave," says Isha Thakur, a Sharjah-based stay-at-home mum who quit her job as a teacher to take care of her son.

Employers should understand how difficult it is for mothers to return to work after delivery.

Most mothers, especially new ones and the ones without family support structure in place, are vulnerable and conflicted between wanting to be with the baby and wanting to return to their careers.

It is not easy to choose the job over the child and ideally it should not be seen as that kind of decision. A little flexibility in terms of work hours by employers and governments would go a long way to make women feel valued at the work place.

The reality across the world is very different. And unfortunately some firms discriminate. A survey by New Delhi-based firm, LocalCircles, suggests employers think fatter maternity leaves have a negative impact on the profitability of the company.

"In a poll of more than 4,300 startups, SMEs and entrepreneurs based in India, 35 per cent said that this move impacts their ecosystem negatively in terms of both the cost and the profitability of the business. Tellingly, the 10 per cent that said it would not impact them, did not have any female employees; 39 per cent said it would have a positive effect on the company as it'll lead to a happier workforce."

It's not just working mothers like me who are eager to get paid time-off to be with their newborns. There are a large number of activists, researchers, thinkers, who point out that there is merit in giving mothers the leeway to take parenting breaks. India, for instance, is losing 2.5 per cent of GDP growth because the work population includes just 27 per cent women.

Integrating more women in the workforce also makes for happier work places. A compassionate attitude by decision makers goes a long way. It makes for better employees. And women employees should be ably supported through the right attitude and generous maternity leave. [email protected] (Suneeti writes for a living. She plans to save, build a house by the sea and retire)

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