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Between motherhood and employment

  • Published at 11:56 am April 11th, 2019
Does she have to choose between her job and her baby?
Does she have to choose between her job and her baby? / BIGSTOCK

Ensuring maternity leave is a step towards gender equality

Exactly a month from now, the world will celebrate Mother’s Day. In lieu of the greeting card tags, flower bouquets, and arguments about monetizing sentiments, let’s shift the conversation towards motherhood itself. 

According to ILO, women’s global labour force participation rate was 48.5% last year, which makes for a good place to start: Is the female workforce getting the benefits they need, should they decide to become mothers?

Maternal leave is an employee benefit which allows expecting mothers to take time off from their work to care for their child. For healthy brain development and overall well-being, a child needs the care of their mothers. 

The arguments for maternal leave are many, but a strong factor, especially when juxtaposed with motherhood, is that studies have linked paid maternity leave to lower infant mortality rates. Aside from giving the time needed for mothers to recover from childbirth, maternal leave can also aid in reducing the risk of post-partum depression.

There are persistent arguments against it, and with the US still without mandated leave for mothers, they are also worth looking at. Cost is one of them -- funding leave for employees is not cheap, regardless of them being paid or unpaid. 

According to neo-classical economists, the demand for women employees will fall should there be an expectation of rising costs of hiring women. Segueing this to the term “motherhood penalty” will remind us of the systematic disadvantages that women often face in the workplace compared to their male counterparts, with motherhood being one of the key factors put forward.

However, maternal leave does not just benefit employees. More and more organizations are realizing how much of a competitive advantage it is to offer time off to new parents. Organizations can benefit from increased productivity from returning workers. 

Google extended its maternity leave program, and the result was happier and more productive employees. The company stated that the cost was “more than offset by the value of retaining expertise and avoiding the cost of a new hire.” 

It also does wonders on employee loyalty -- a supportive workplace environment in the crucial time of pregnancy and child-rearing is likelier to have their employees want to keep working there.

If our understanding of parental leave is centred on the needs of newborns, then where does paternity leave step in? The presence of fathers or secondary parents are not only needed for the child, but also assists the mothers in alleviating some of the burden of caring for a new baby. 

Do we have the scope to debate over paternity leave, when mothers -- the traditional caregivers deemed by society -- are having a hard time securing time off?

Canada has rolled out a new parental leave policy just last month for the secondary parent to be able to take five to eight weeks off to care for their child. The policy aims to promote greater gender equality by integrating men into mainstream ideas of nurturing and care-giving.

While Section 45 of the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 mandates mothers to be able to take 16 weeks off from work, this is hardly practiced throughout the spectrum of employment in the country and paternity leave far from being brought into the dialogue. 

The good news is that organizations have become increasingly aware of the importance and need for implementing such policies. BRAC has recently extended its existing paternity leave policy for its employees. 

Expectant fathers can now take four weeks off from work with pay. For mothers, a six months’ leave with pay is granted; in case of adopting mothers, a three months’ leave can be availed.

Family bonding and healthier children are telltale proponents for parental leave. But it is about time that all employers understand that allowing new parents time off also means greater financial stability for their employees, greater employee loyalty, stronger attachment to the workplace, and, if we play our cards right, a step towards gender equality. 

Luba Khalili is Deputy Manager, Communications, BRAC.

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