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It was Mother’s Day yesterday, when we all celebrated mothers, mostly in their roles as caregivers and nurturers. But do we give a thought to mothers and soon-to-be mothers in Indian workplaces?
Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I was happy to read a fairly large number of digital media posts by people across organizations expressing gratitude towards their mothers, sharing how they depended on their maa for unconditional attention and time, and celebrating the lengths they went for them when they were at a tender age.
I couldn’t miss the paradox.
It is obvious that we, as a society, adore our mothers for being the quintessential maa, the nurturer and caregiver. But something happens when we perceive someone else’s maa in a workplace. The maa who is a colleague at the cusp of motherhood, the maa who is a reportee rejoining office post maternity leave. The maa who we work with.
When a fellow working maa takes time off to attend her child’s parent-teacher meeting, we scoff at her misplaced priorities.
When she opts for flexi-work hours to manage her child’s preparation for a competition simply because that’s not an expectation from her working husband and someone has to do it, we look down at her.
When she expresses her wish to embrace motherhood, we frown at her for ruining her promising career.
When a pregnant coworker takes maternity leave, we perceive her leave as a ‘break’ from work, a ‘holiday’ of sorts.
When a young mother leaves from work at a fixed hour every day, we label her as non-productive despite her day’s efficiency, because her male colleagues and childless female colleagues are physically available till 8pm.
When a married woman sits in an interview, we ask her if she’s planning on having children, never mind that her own father even never asked her that question. An affirmative reply translates into ‘bad news,’ the exact opposite of how the answer is perceived outside the walls of the organization.
When it’s time for year-end appraisal of a young mother, we see it as an opportunity to deny a raise and save costs to the company by quoting her absence to give birth and recover physically.
When a young mother is due for promotion just as any other childless woman at her level, we enlist all those carefully recorded occasions in the year of her motherhood to prove that she was undeserving of a promotion that year.
I can go on. There are enough situations and statistics to show how the same hallowed institution of motherhood celebrated in our society, is admonished in the workplace, almost as if the workplace is not a part of the society but on a different planet.
In fact, the situation has become worse than what it was five years ago. For example, the latest Bright Horizons’ annual Modern Family Index reported at Forbes found that the US may even be moving backwards in supporting mothers in the workplace.
Employers and colleagues, male and female alike (unfortunately both continue to perpetuate existing gender norms and stereotypes), don’t recognize, let alone respect, the ‘role of mother’ in a fellow working woman. Is it that difficult to extend the same thought, sensitivity, and understanding towards mothers at the workplace, just as they do towards the efforts of their own mothers? Is it so hard to see that the young mother is trying to perform her best while juggling the personal tsunami of changes in her life, physical and mental?
On the contrary, employers look at these mothers and to-be mothers suspiciously, in quite unhelpful, and even actively adverse terms, which ultimately leads to elevated stress levels and drives them out of the workforce. Barring few exceptions, the inherently hostile environment, however glossed up on the surface, continues to remain hostile today. It’s sly and quiet, ensuring a big drop off in the middle management.
Do men and women employers unknowingly imagine that mothers at the workplace are a ‘different’ species, in the sense that they don’t have the caregiver responsibilities to spend the time and energy required to nurture their babies? (I’m not even going into the dismal status of paternity leaves and the superficial sharing of care-giving responsibilities by men in India which is the root cause of burdening the mother.)
Do they assume that what their own mothers did for them when they were babies was not something that the new-age mothers in heels and trousers need to do? Maybe they believe in magic…you know…these working mothers must possess a wand that no one has ever seen, and if not a wand, then at least a doppelganger who performs their non-negotiable tasks of nurture.
Whatever be the reasons of convenience and turning a blind eye to reality, the result of this skewed perception has, over the years, created the “motherhood penalty.” It pains me to even write this expression. It reflects the systematic disadvantages in pay and perception of competence of a young mother in the workplace relative to childless women employees.
It really is time to extend the celebration of Mother’s Day to employers and co-workers vis-à-vis mothers with babies and to-be mothers in their organizations. It’s time for them to reflect on how they perceive them in their organizations, how their thoughts and behavior impact the productivity, morale, and continuity.
Because dear male employers and fellow workers, you’ve enjoyed the nurture and care of your mothers. You celebrate it. You know its necessity and value.
Dear female employers and fellow workers, either you’ve already experienced the challenges of motherhood and appreciate the unique nature of its difficulties how much ever one may prepare for it, or there’s a possibility that you’ll sail in the same boat sometime in the future.
All of you, men and women, combined, are important members of the social fabric. As employers and bosses, you are in a privileged position to shape its future. It’s time to be sensitive and open mined. It’s time to build a care ecosystem at work that goes much beyond the existence of a crèche and a flexi-work policy barely encouraged in spirit.
If you don’t do any of the above, you are losing the talent in your existing workforce that you’ve recruited after investing much time and money. Look at it like a business problem if that works for you.
Most importantly, you’re crucifying promising careers and dreams. And you’re making motherhood a sour experience because it has come at the cost of losing a job, a job that gave the woman a new identity and independence that comes from earning.
I say, look at the larger picture. Look at it as an empowerment opportunity, a chance to make a difference to society, a chance to build a diverse workforce, a chance to create a humane and happy organization. The profits and goodwill will automatically follow.
I know that changing mindsets takes time. But now on, no employer and fellow worker can hide behind an ‘unconscious’ bias that has led to the creation of motherhood penalty. The penalty exists. There is no excuse for it. It’s time to meet the elephant in the room, head on.
Image source: shutterstock
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Anusha Singh is a lawyer turned corporate communications consultant and writer. She works with organizations
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