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Are work-life balance issues only for women? Work-life balance for men is equally important. It is their right, and would be a step towards true equality.
In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook Inc, made it to the headlines once again, when he declared taking two months of paternity leave after his daughter’s birth. Zuckerberg’s decision was seen as significant across the corporate world globally, for two main reasons. First, it came as a strong statement on importance of family life, from one of the busiest and most powerful executives in the present world; and second, Zuckerberg’s decision was unusual among high-level tech executives, especially men.
Balancing the requirements and responsibilities of work and life has been a much discussed issue in the context of working women across the world. But when it comes to similar issues faced by their male counterparts, the discourse is disappointingly silent. The silence is even more frustrating in the context of India.
Well, it is high time we come out of the closet! I am referring here to the corporate closet which makes it important for employees, especially men, to fake that they are working 24/7 and that work-life balance issues are only for women. The fact is men have the same kind of work-family balance issues that women face, but the guys’ problems get a lot less attention. And that’s a shame.
I remember watching a recent video, where The Guardian reporter Rose Hackman went out on the streets of New York’s financial district asking male executives a question which is usually reserved for the working women: how do they balance work and life? From compromising on advances in career, to opting for flexible work hours, these men seemed to have similar problems and were applying similar strategies to balance both fronts, as we generally expect from and associate with female executives.
The predicament of working males was best put forth by one of the interviewees who said, “we have this culture, (especially in corporate America), where as a man your responsibility is to go to work first, and basically make as much money and support your family. As long as you are doing that, you are fulfilling requirements as a father. That’s absolutely false! There is so much more that you bring to the table other than your pay check!”
The problems of male executives highlighted in the video are true universally and men in India Inc. also take cognizance of these facts. Thousands of Indian male executives agree that they are hardly any better off when it comes to having disposable time to indulge in after-work activities.
As workers across industries put in between 9-12 hour work days, spend long hours in excruciating conditions everyday to reach their workplaces, take calls at the dinner table and work from home on weekends, the fatter pay cheques somehow don’t seem justifiable compared to the stress- and hassle-free lives of the earlier generation. And with the constant pressure to be ‘available’ to reporting managers at all times, the productivity of workers is also questionable.
Interestingly, this is perhaps the only issue where the Indian patriarchal system is making matters as bad for men as much as it is for women. In patriarchal India it is a comfortable idea to pass the responsibilities of home and child rearing to the women, making them either compromise on career goals or withdraw completely from the workforce. The Indian system hails the man as the provider of his family and thus woman have the ‘easy’ options of ‘working only for part time engagement’ or ‘sitting at home’.
The paradox of this story of patriarchy in India is that since men are expected to be the real providers of the family, they end up being in constant pressure of earning more and eventually spend more work hours outside home. It is no surprise therefore that men report more work-life conflict than women. The good news is that Indian men are gradually opening up against the way patriarchy is enslaving them and are trying to find a balance between the different aspects of life.
So what are our Indian men doing to balance life and remain effectively productive at work? To be sure, many men do find ways to achieve balance and, interestingly, they often use the same techniques as women. Studies have shown that most high-earning women work in ‘split shifts’ — leaving work at a reasonable time, hanging out with their families, and then doing more work after the kids go to bed.
This is also what Saurabh Dey, working for an IT firm in Bangalore, tells me he does. He leaves work early by 5:30 in the evening. He says, “The drive back home takes me about 45 mins and then I spend the rest of the evening with my family.” He does household stuff, helps his wife with diner, plays with his 4 year old and puts him to bed. Once everyone has retired to bed, Saurabh starts working on email and proposals again between 10.30 and 11 p.m.
Others are discovering amazing work/life possibilities that come from working at home. Kalparup Sinha working for a financial firm in Kolkata works from home in part to spend more time with his 5 year old twins. He claims getting not just quality family time, but finds the set-up productive for his work too. “Lot of people talk about how useful it is stepping away from the keyboard to give yourself time to think,” he says. “This is an excellent time to take the kids to the park or just a walk. I’ve never been on a walk with my little ones that didn’t end up with some positive thought or action coming out of it.”
Men in India are opting for plenty of other strategies for achieving that balance. Some might consciously work longer on some days so that they can pick up their kids from school on others. Some might do weekend work in order to buy themselves more reasonable hours during the week. None of this is about compromising one’s ability to work. What matters, says Milind Apte, chief people officer at Godrej Properties, is a stress-free transition from the personal to the professional. “It’s not about X number of hours spent at work or at home or the number of leaves… it’s about having the flexibility to be where one needs to be when required,” says Apte.
A spokesperson for Hindustan Unilever (HUL), a mammoth FMCG organisation that employs nearly 18,000 people, says that finding balance starts with each employee identifying his (or her) ‘big rocks’ i.e. ‘the non-negotiable in our lives — family, health, career, societal contribution, etc.’ and how one makes these big rocks co-exist.
While the male executives in India Inc. are striving hard to make the various aspects of their lives co-exist harmoniously, companies are also gradually warming up to the idea of providing male employees the opportunity to balance their work/life demands. Hindustan Unilever’s approach in enabling this, for instance, is to work with the life needs of employees by allowing flexible timings, flexible office locations to work from, career breaks ranging from 6 months to 5 years and a second careers program.
Godrej’s policies cater to employees of three different generations — Baby Boomers, Gen X and Gen Y. So apart from flexible hours and work-from-home options, for the younger employees, Godrej Properties supports employees who want to take time off work and participate in the Teach for India campaign. Godrej also has a Brighter Giving initiative where they help employees who want to contribute to society, find a cause that can benefit from their skills.
Though the companies are increasingly conceding to the needs of their male employees with regards to work-life balance, much remains wanting. For instance, in the issue of paternity and child care leaves, Indian working men are still waiting for some welcome changes. Paternity and child care leaves are standard benefits given to male employees on becoming a parent. They are recognised globally, across industries. In western countries organizations offer long paternity leaves which help a father take on additional responsibilities of the family. For instance, in Italy, an employee receives 13 weeks leave with 80 per cent pay, eight weeks in Sweden and 45 weeks in Norway, both offering 80 per cent pay to employees on paternity leave. Canada gives its employees 35 weeks of leave with 55 per cent pay. USA and Germany have the concept of unpaid paternity leaves.
The concept of paternity/parenting leaves, introduced in Sweden in 1974, became a talking point in India only a decade ago. The concept was introduced by private multinational companies to attract talent and be known for their HR practices. The irony is that, presently the same private sector is largely silent about formalising these leave policies. In 1997, the Central Civil Services Leave Rules brought in paternity leave for men in Indian government service, including probationers and apprentices. Those with fewer than two surviving children are allowed 15 days of fully-paid leave which may be combined with other leave. The provision was extended to adoptive fathers in 2009.
For the private sector, though, policymakers failed to see the link between division of labour at home and equality at the workplace. This, despite separate reviews of the law by the Labour, and Women and Child Development Ministries, making a compelling case for introducing the concept in India.
In the absence of a legal framework, the matter of paternity leave is left to individual companies in the private sector. In most cases, such leave to male employees, if granted, is restricted to a week or two. In India, one of the best is Facebook, which recently extended the four-month paid paternity leave available to employees in the US to the company’s offices across the globe.
The silence on paternity/parenting leave in the private sector is in stark contrast to the maternity benefits given to women employees. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, which is applicable in the private sectors, grants up to 12 weeks (which has been proposed recently to be amended to 26 weeks) leave to women employees during and post child birth. This lopsided emphasise on the maternity aspect without addressing the issue of parenthood by private companies, ignores the highly skewed gender distribution of unpaid work in India. It hinders constructive efforts in the struggle towards a gender-balanced approach to care-giving and unpaid domestic work.
Even with the recently introduced Child Care Leave (CCL) these underlying gender biases prevail. The central government, in 2008, consequent to recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission, had introduced childcare leave for its women employees for a maximum period of two years during their entire service, subject to clearance by a competent authority. Women are allowed to avail of CCL to take care of up to two minor children, whether for rearing or to look after any of their needs like examination, sickness etc. The CCL scheme is a welcome initiative to protect the interest of working women employees of Government of India. But once again the male employees are left out of this benefit.
In the changed social scenario, both parents are equally responsible for managing child rearing responsibilities including health, education and overall growth of their children. Where both parents are working, the responsibility of the father in overall management of the family may be more or less same to that of the mother. In case of single male parents, caring for the child is a major work-life balance issue. By keeping the male parent out of the purview of the CCL, once again the law makers reflect their parochial understanding of the changing gender roles in the society.
Consideration for a working woman’s child bearing and child care responsibilities are no doubt commendable steps towards gender equity. But they would in no way be sufficient if we do not change the policies to include men in these life processes. Facilitating women, grossly and often exclusively over men in processes of child birth and post-partum care, only goes to reflect the gender bias that still exists in our society when we think of these life cycle processes. They are still thought of as exclusively women’s responsibilities and therefore she is the one who should be taking breaks from her career to manage the task well. By denying the father enough time and scope to share family responsibilities we are only entrenching the gendered division of roles in Indian society further.
Recent data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) reveals how India is going against the global trend of improved gender parity in labour force participation. It shows Indian women on average spend 297 minutes daily on unpaid work, mostly caring for children or elders; the average male, on the other hand, puts in just 31 minutes. This eventually leads to the skewed proportions of female labour force participation, a meagre 27%, as compared to 79.9% among men.
It is equally essential and highly important that the father takes equal responsibility in the upbringing of the child and organizations, both private and public, need to support this in all the possible ways. As the practice of equally shared parenting gains fast acceptance in the West, India could pave the way for attitudinal change by making changes on the legislative front. This would allow fathers to be just as engaged in childcare, while enabling women to balance their productive and reproductive roles.
Image source: working father with baby by Shutterstock.
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