Meet the people who are leading India's gender-neutral workspace revolution
Offering between 8 to 26 weeks of paternity leave to male staff, some Indian firms are leading the ethical corporate policy change. But how practical is it in a country that disapproves long breaks and legitimises long hours?
At this all-boys school reunion held recently, a batchmate pulled out his phone and told everyone willing to listen to tales of his third newborn. After the contraception jokes were made, something interesting happened. Several of the men who had gathered around the phone were actually listening. It's the sort of scene that would've made Chandler Bing go, "Oh my god, where are all the men?" It wasn't very long ago—in the '90s and early noughts—that the era-defining TV show Friends, reflected the prevalent view of the time: men aren't supposed to enjoy knitting or put on make-up or be seen raising kids. Remember, Chandler's friend Ross had two children who mysteriously grew up in the background even as he stumbled from one marriage to another.
Look back a few decades more and the difference is starker. A Pew survey from 2015 found out that fathers spent roughly seven hours a week on childcare, compared to 2.5 hours back in 1965. And, while the survey is specific to America, the story isn't very different with urban Indian men. In the 2011 research paper, Role Of Fathers In Children's Lives: A View From Urban India, Dr Rajalakshmi Sriram reports that as many of 62 per cent of fathers she interviewed felt guilty and frustrated about not being present during their child's illness, emergencies or spending enough time with them. Men, she writes, also experience conflict between their job and spousal roles. The paper also quotes an AC Nielson survey that reveals that 50 per cent men craved for more time with family.
Pepsico's legal manager, Luv Kapil, says when Anayah was born in July 2018, he received barely a couple of calls from his team in Delhi, seeking clarification on ongoing cases, "but otherwise, I’ve not worked." Pic/Nishad Alam
In 2017, backed by then Congress MP from Maharashtra, Rajeev Satav, the Paternity Benefit Bill was introduced in the Indian Parliament with the aim of extending benefits of parental leave to men to 15 days across all sectors, organised and unorganised. The bill stated, "The maximum period for which any man with less than two surviving children shall be entitled to paternity benefit shall be fifteen days of which more than seven days shall precede the date of expected delivery. Provided that paternity benefit shall be availed up to three months from the date of delivery of child." While the bill hasn't been passed, many Indian corporates have taken a cue from global standards and extended their paternity leave to beyond this two-week period.
Earlier this year, food-aggregator Zomato announced a paternity leave of six months, making it one of the top companies in this category in India, along with Swedish MNC IKEA, which started retail operations in India in August 2018. Daminee Sawhney, vice president, HR, Zomato, says, "We will never have truly gender-neutral organisations unless we have gender-neutral homes. The parental policy is one initiative that has brought us closer to creating a culture which allows everyone a holistic and equal chance to excel and exceed at their workplace."
Because J&J India allows staff to combine their various leaves and benefits with paternity leave, Jogeshwari residents Sourabh Bagla and Anchal Goyal were able to be with Navya through the first year, at different times. Pics/Sameer Markande
When we speak to Ajith Ravi, Horizon Operations Manager at Novartis in Hyderabad, he spends five minutes explaining why it's important for a baby to burp. He says he learnt to make his two-month-old son Aadhvik burp by watching YouTube tutorials and how he's the only person in his family who can burp the baby.
The 31-year-old joined Novartis five months ago and has been on paternity leave for a little over three months. The Switzerland headquartered healthcare giant offers a 26-week paternity leave. In India, the policy came into effect from July this year. It is applicable with retrospective effect to employees who became parents on or before January 30, 2019, is gender neutral and is applicable for both birthing and non-birthing parents. There is no cap on the number of births and, should the child be born premature, employees are entitled to additional leave depending on the number of weeks of prematurity. Employees can take the entire 26 weeks at one go within a year of the child's birth or it can be broken into two tranches of 13 weeks. Ravi has chosen the latter option.
Sunil Tripathi, regional business manager at Novartis Delhi, says being able to opt for the company's 26-week parental leave policy has helped him be a hands on father to newborn Pratush, an opportunity he didn’t have when Nivrity was born seven years ago. Pic/Nishad Alam
Speaking of the discussions that led to the policy's introduction in India, Anusia Pillay, country head, People and Organisation, Novartis India, says, "We are a global company and the decision to go gender neutral with parental leave was a global decision. The broad guidance was for Novartis affiliates in the countries to provide employees with a benefit of a minimum period of 14 weeks paid parental leave for both parents or whatever was allowed by law to the birthing parent and extend that to the non-birthing parent as well. Novartis India decided to go with 26 weeks of gender neutral parental leave in line with what is available to the birthing parent in India."
While Novartis encourages breaking down the 26-week leave into no more than two tranches, other companies are more flexible. PepsiCo India's 12-week paternity leave can be availed in tranches of a minimum seven days within the first year of the child's birth/adoption/ surrogacy. Johnson & Johnson offers eight weeks of paternity leave which can be broken up according to the employee's convenience.
Deepinder Goyal, founder, Zomato
While there is little to argue against the merits of this policy, the question is, how does it pan out on the office floor with deadline pressures and performance targets being a reality? Discussing the pros and cons that were measured before the policy came into place, Pillay says, "We wanted to treat all employees equally. We also considered that this would improve the employee experience, resulting in a more engaged workforce with higher levels of empathy and compassion. At the same time, we did recognise that it could put a strain on resources if we saw a rush of employees taking parental leave [at the same time]. It is early days yet."
She adds that the policy was extensively discussed at the People & Organization Board and approved by the Country Leadership Team. "Considering that we are among the first movers in this area, there is not much experience to fall back on. We are encouraging our people to avail of this leave if they are eligible and teams are going through a change management process where necessary. We believe that in a year's time, we would have more data points so that we can fine-tune it if required."
Sanjay Murdeshwar, MD, Novartis
Often, after the human resource department puts the policy in place, it's the team managers that outline the nitty-gritties. It also depends on the nature of the employee's job. In the case of Pepsico's legal manager, Luv Kapil, all it took was a handover of the cases on which he was working. "My manager and my team pitched in," says the Delhi-based 30-year-old, whose wife Sheena Sharma, 30, gave birth to Anayah in July 2018. "I may have received a couple of calls seeking clarification, but otherwise, I've not worked." Others such as Ravi check emails every now and then or connect with their team on Skype to ensure that ongoing projects are on track.
Pepsico and Johnson & Johnson India (J&J) also have daycare centres on campus. In locations where Pepsico doesn't have space for onsite daycare, it ties up with local daycares at discounted rates. Pepsico also offers flexibility in work hours and the opportunity to work from home for an additional year. Its Location Free Policy offer employees flexibility to work from a location of their choice. Similarly, J&J staff can opt to work from home once a week and combine their various leaves and benefits with their paternity leave. It's this flexibility that helped Mumbai-based senior product manager Sourabh Bagla, 30, and Aanchal Goyal, 29, raise their daughter Navya, who is now two. Bagla broke up his leave in a manner that he wasn't away from work for long. "I took a couple of weeks in the first six months when Aanchal was on maternity leave. Once she joined work, I availed of the remaining leaves in five parts."
With an employee gone for months, do firms with long paternity leave policy have to invest in substitutes? Pillay says for now, they are managing by asking associates to let them know a few months before availing leave so that the company can decide on a case to case basis. "In some cases, the temporary vacancy has been filled by an employee from the team taking a stretch assignment, or job rotations as a part of a particular individual's development plan. In other cases, it has been filled through an internship," she says, adding that so far, 71 male employees of a total of 6,080 (as of September 30, 2019) have applied for parental leave. In roles that are potentially more difficult to handover temporarily, Pillay says, the call is taken after consulting with the team lead.
In 2015, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation extended the benefits of its parental leave policy from 16 weeks to 52 weeks. However, in January 2019, in a blog post on LinkedIn, the foundation's Chief Human Resources Officer, Steven Rice, announced that they would be reducing it to 26 weeks. This was done, he wrote, after, "We received feedback and saw in practice that a year away was more disruptive than we anticipated." Besides issues of finding the right talent to replace the employee on leave, the foundation also faced a problem with replacements. "Backfill [replacements] positions had a ripple effect across the organisation, in some cases extending two or three layers deep. While some backfills are hired externally, a large percentage are internal and once we backfilled the role of an employee going on leave, we often needed to find a backfill for the backfill. On one team, 50% of the staff was either on leave or staffed by those in backfill positions, making the regular work of the foundation far more difficult than expected."
The post, which received over 450 comments, drew mixed response. While the directly critical one asked, "You couldn't figure out how to backfill positions, so you cut the year to 6 months? You are everything that is wrong with America and capitalism, all rolled into one."; a comment by Alex Worden pointed out that parenting doesn't stop after the first year and that, as a society, we need to understand the benefits of giving parents time with young children. "Perhaps it would be useful to consider the needs of human parents as a species. Clearly, we have evolved the capability to continue to work to provide for a family. For the mental health of the parents themselves, it would be better if shortly after childbirth, both parents returned to some form of part-time work. Trading off with each other and childcare. I'd rather spread this over the first 3-5 years than the madness of 100% full leave."
It may be a policy that gives men long leaves, but the benefit say child experts, is often for women who would, otherwise, end up bearing the load of child-rearing. Emrana Sheikh, head of human resources, Johnson & Johnson India and South Asia, says, "As a leader in the care and development of healthy babies, we know how critical it is for both parents to be able to spend quality time with a child during the first year of birth or adoption... We do believe that active fatherhood provides the love and support mothers need after birth. With the exception of breastfeeding, fathers can help relieve the pressure on [on all counts] by helping to bathe, massage and care for their babies. What's more, the close relationship between father and child boosts the child's physical and mental development significantly."
Mumbai-based psychiatrist, Dr Pervin Dadachanji, agrees. She explains that when infants feel they have the attention of the primary caregiver, they grow up to be more secure. "This means calming the baby when s/he is fretful, which in the initial months, is a 24/7 job. If both parents are around, the burden of doing it doesn't fall on one person. It also means the quality of interaction between the parent and the child is better." Sunil Tripathi, 38, a regional business manager at Novartis, Delhi, says he never realised how his wife handled raising their daughter—seven-year-old Nivriti—since he was out at work most of the time. Two months ago, when Neelam gave birth to Pratyush, he had the chance to be more hands on. "Now, I get how difficult it is," he says. "I can see how little parents get to sleep in the initial months and how much of a difference it makes when you're at home with the child. It's helped me develop a bond with Pratyush while also spending time with Nivriti. My parents, who live away from us, are also relieved to know that my wife isn't alone at home raising the baby."
How to plan for a team member's parental leave
1. Don't consider it a favour
As manager, don't think of paternity leave as a favour you are granting; it's company policy, so, grant it with grace and dignity. Make the staffer feel comfortable with the idea of going on leave and when he is away, try to let him have his space. Assure him that not only will he have his job when he returns, he will also retain his designation.
2. Offer counselling
It isn't unusual for employees to find it difficult to cope with returning to work after a long time away. Offer to connect them with professionals who've been in their position, so that they can learn how to cope and know that they aren't alone.
3. Ensure a complete handover
To make sure the handover is complete, it's crucial to not wait until the last minute to re-assign duties. If you do it in advance, not only does it help make the transition smoother, it also ensures that even the smaller and easy-to-miss aspects of the employee's job profile (that you may otherwise miss) are taken care of.
4. Clarify to the replacement it's a temporary role
Most large organisations have a strong continuity plan, but what's crucial is to make sure that the replacement/deputy knows that s/he will be stepping into her/his colleague's shoes only for a fixed duration. That way, you ensure they don't feel cheated when the employee returns from leave. It's easy to focus on the person taking paternity leave and forget about the replacement's aspirations. Don't take anyone for granted.
5. Keep in touch
While it's important to allow the employee the space he needs, it's also nice to let him know he is being remembered. It's so that he doesn't feel like you're only interested in finding out when he will be back. A new year message, a birthday greeting or even a text asking if he needs any help, will go a long way.
Malcolm Mistry, director, Ushta Te Consultancy Services
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