Opinion | Bringing up a baby is a couple’s job, not a role that a mother must manage alone

Young women want parental leave, and not maternity leave. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

11 Dec 2018 | Anuradha Das Mathur

Women won’t be constrained by maternity leave if their partners could take time off

As India’s economy was experiencing tectonic changes in 1991 due to liberalization, a new generation of women were either joining or finding their way into the workforce. For many of these professional urban women, their incomes were an additional “top-up” to the household income, and their decision to work was a choice, not a necessity or a way of life. In fact, a study done by Surjit Bhalla and Ravinder Kaur for the London School of Economics between 1983-2005, found that for each extra year of the husband’s education, there would be a corresponding one percentage point drop in the wife’s participation in the labour force, suggesting that there is an inverse correlation between spousal income and women’s participation in the workforce, therefore deeming the woman’s work as “unnecessary”.

Almost three decades after liberalization, the third generation of working women—millennial women—is challenging this and beginning to assert itself, shaping the modern economy in its wake. This is most clearly seen in how young women have significantly different expectations of their own lives, which is even more pronounced when compared to previous generations. Marital and parenting decisions—when to get married and if or when to become a parent—are decreasingly being dictated by society or families. Having flipped the script, they often look to fit other plans into their careers.

A 27-year old student at the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women explains: “I’ve grown up knowing that it will be difficult to strike a balance. But I have always prioritized work and my career, and tried to fit my relationships within that. Even though I had chosen my partner to marry, I decided what I want to do for the first five years, and we worked around it. To be good at work and home is difficult. I chose my career to come first. Also, I do not aspire to be an ‘ideal’ daughter-in-law, but prefer to be best friends with my mother-in-law.”

In contrast, her 56-year old mother recounts, “When we were growing up, we were told that family should be the first priority for women. There was pressure on us not to work, and prioritize our families and babies. Now, I feel that working and earning your own money is important for women. A woman’s ambitions shouldn’t be compromised. Family time is important, but women have an identity and they shouldn’t lose it in the bargain.”

We have been surveying millennial women to understand their career motivations and how their workplaces are adjusting to the new wave of women’s empowerment. A majority of young professional women aren’t assuming that parenting is the sole responsibility of the mother. It comes as no surprise then that they are not particularly in favour of being provided childcare facilities accessible only to working mothers. They overwhelmingly support parental leave, with almost 93% of our respondents telling us that organizations should offer parental leave, irrespective of gender, to promote women’s participation in the workforce. In contrast, less than 7% asked for paternity leave, and not even 3% think maternity leave is the solution to the woes of working women.

Paid parental leave refers to the time off a couple, not just a woman, can take with the birth of a new child. Expanding access to paid parental leave has been one of the core goals of feminist movements around the world, as it shifts the onus of care from the mother to both parents. Many argue that women won’t be constrained by maternity leave if their husbands or partners could also take time off; and this will bring them much closer to attaining gender equality in the workplace, of course, along with other important benefits such as greater responsibility and job promotions.

The Indian government’s 2016 decision to more than double paid maternity leave for women to 26 weeks flew in the faces of many professional women. Not because they didn’t appreciate a government looking out for their workforce participation, but because it reinforced the notion that childcare is the sole responsibility of the mother. A 32-year-old father , who did not get paternity leave, said, “Four to six weeks for fathers should be the minimum and perhaps 10 weeks if companies can stretch it. But societal perceptions discourage men from taking time off even if the company allows them to do so.”

To put it simply, there is a paradigm shift in the roles defined by gender. While the actual process of giving birth can only be undertaken by the woman, taking care of the baby can be done by either parent. Young women today recognize this, and want companies and governments to understand that childcare is a parental responsibility. They no longer subscribe to gender notions of raising children. If women can do it, so can—and should—men.

The Millennial Girl is a column based on an online survey conducted with over 100 urban, working millennial women to uncover their attitudes and opinions about the workplace.

Anuradha Das Mathur is founder and dean of the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, and a Yale Greenberg World Fellow 2016. With inputs from Vivan Marwaha