Many countries in the world are admired for their employeebenefit schemes and work-life balance. Similarly, there are organisations that receive the ‘great place to work’ awards year after year and have enviable retention rates. Not that other countries or organisations don’t have employee-friendly policies or practices. They do. But as often as not, they cease to view employees as human beings. A female employee having a child underscores the need to manage people as a human resource and not just treat them as workers.

Maternity leave and child care are the twin challenges for working women. This is one major reason why women drop out of the workforce. The lack of a robust support system forces them to make a choice between their child and work. Businesses and economies both need a diverse workforce for better productivity and growth. Hiring a large number of women at entrylevel is not the answer. There is a high attrition rate among female talent at the mid-management levels. There is need for measures that will ensure women can return to work and are able to protect both the profession and the child.

On 28 December 2015, a proposal to increase maternity leave from the current 12 weeks to 26 weeks was introduced by the Women and Child Development Ministry. The proposal brought the subject in the public domain once again, with the spotlight on the increasing number of women leaving their jobs due to a variety of factors, particularly childbirth and family responsibilities. With women constituting 24 per cent of the workforce and only 5 per cent of women being able to climb the ladder, these numbers reveal the malaise that plagues the Indian corporate sector. According to the Global Gender Report 2015 crafted by by the World Economic Forum, India ranks 139th when it comes to the Economic Participation and Opportunity pillar. Clearly, this indicates that India is hugely missing out on leveraging the economic potential of women who constitute almost half its population.

The new Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Bill 2017 is a welcome move by the government in support of working mothers. The increase of paid maternity leave to 26 weeks from 12 weeks is a major step in this direction. Women can now take care of their children at the very critical growth stage, without any loss of pay. The advantage of additional time and money will surely ease the pressure women felt on having to return to work after just three months.

The New Maternity Bill has also provided women with the opportunity to plan motherhood better. This in itself will encourage more women to come back to work after maternity leave. The Bill is expected to benefit at least 1.8 million women, which is a positive start.

According to a 2015 report by McKinsey Global Institute, women contribute just 17 per cent of India’s GDP compared to the global average of 37 per cent. India can increase its 2025 gross domestic product (GDP), estimated at $4.83 trillion by simply enabling women to participate in the economy on a par with men. In the current economic scenario, where talent is a scarce commodity, companies ought to take measures required to retain the talent of women. While many organisations are now offering maternity leave with a mix of pre and post-natal leave that ranges from 6 months to a year, some are still following the previous norm of three-month maternity leave. Its ambit has now expanded to include childbirth through surrogacy and adoption in order to cover all aspects of childbirth and mothercraft. Fathers are assuming increased responsibility. What was once viewed as a ‘woman’s domain’ is now changing its course. It is now accepted that the father’s involvement since the conception of pregnancy cements the bond between father and child.

Co-parenting will help to lessen the pressures of raising the child and strengthen the husband-wife bonding. The introduction and reinforcement of paternity leave will enable the creation of an ecosystem, which will help the successful uptake of the sixmonth maternity leave policy. Globally, parental leave, especially maternal leave, is a norm rather than an exception. While Bulgaria offers the longest maternal leave of 58 weeks, women working in the UK and Australia receive a year’s leave. Their colleagues in France and Singapore are entitled for 16 weeks of paid absence.

From the national perspective, having women in the workforce will have a positive outcome on a country’s economy. India’s total national income is projected to increase by 16 to 20 per cent if women join the workforce. It can help to accelerate the growth in sectors which are facing a shortage of talent. A gender diverse workforce can have a positive impact on the company’s bottom line. The economic condition of the household stands to gain from the second source of income. The elevation in monetary status will have far-reaching consequences.

In the unorganized sector, where labour is cheap and which employs 90 per cent of the female workforce, pregnant workers are often fired on flimsy grounds. Sadly, the Maternity Benefits (Amendment) Bill 2016 has done nothing to change the status quo. The amended Act is undoubtedly well intentioned but much will depend on execution. Attitudinal change is critical. At present, even though the law provides for three months of maternity leave, many employers in the corporate sector deny women the full benefit by either not paying in full or by excluding benefits other than basic pay. Others avoid appointing women in critical functions out of an unwillingness to cope with changes in women’s life cycle, even seeking an undertaking on avoiding pregnancy. Changing this mindset cannot be achieved through legislation alone.

The law is no assurance that the situation of working women will improve. For that to happen, the amended Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, needs to be implemented in letter and spirit. Measures such as allowing working women up to 26 weeks of maternity leave, ensuring employers provide crèche facilities and allowing a woman to work from home will help new mothers, even if they do not have a fulltime support system to help raise the child. Keeping women in the workforce is beneficial for employers and for women. Improved retention of women will narrow the gap in skills in many sectors and lower the cost of training. It will also be a substantive contribution to women’s empowerment, as financial independence ~ or at least being financially productive ~ contributes substantially to strengthening the woman’s voice.