It would come as no surprise that, in India, women shoulder the lion’s share of childcare and household responsibilities. According to a survey conducted by consulting firm Dalberg, Indian women do 10 times more unpaid care work than Indian men, and Covid-19-related challenges increased their burden by as much as 30%. Unsurprisingly, in its survey of 8,000 working mothers in India, online career platform JobsForHer found that 51% of respondents wanted to quit their jobs during the pandemic; and, startlingly, as many as 59% felt they did not receive adequate support from employers.
India has instituted several policies to encourage women with household responsibilities to enter the workforce – the National Creche Scheme, for example – but many, like New Delhi-based Shilpi Jain, who heads corporate communications for IPE Global, feel a lot more needs to be done to increase the participation of working mothers in the labour force.
The Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017, with its ambitious provisions like 26 weeks of paid maternity leave and childcare facilities for working women, helps resolve many challenges and is a step in the right direction to make India a part of the more progressive world. Jain believes such provisions can encourage more women to enter the workforce by allowing them to balance family and work life without sacrificing anything.
“Yet, at the same time, it’s also important to address structural issues through higher education, skill development, and community awareness, by mandating safe workplaces and incentivizing diversity and inclusivity across hierarchies, and by institutionally reducing wage gaps and increasing women’s opportunities across sectors,” Jain says.
Of all the changes Jain recommends, setting up on-site childcare facilities may seem like the easiest one to institute. However, there are several reasons why organisations in India either ignore this completely or prefer to partner with childcare services located close to their offices rather than build a facility on-site. Speaking from his experience at DLF Cyberpark in Gurgaon, which did offer such a facility to women employees who worked in those complexes back when he worked there, Mukul Chopra, Chief Human Resources Officer at the edtech enterprise, ConveGenius, says, “What we observed was that many working mothers do not want to leave their children at such facilities as they have a support system at home – family members – that they can rely on to help them with the kids when they are at work.”
Chopra points out that when there’s a ‘Bring your child to work day,’ most parents in India are reluctant to bring their children in. “How many employees get their kids to work even if the workplace hosts a children’s day event?” he asks, pointing out that Indian parents often feel the office is an alien environment for children and they often have safety concerns.
Shilpi Jain considers Chopra’s view and says that she too isn’t sure how many takers there would be for an on-site facility. “I’m a mother of two daughters, now 19 and 14, but I would not have used an on-site childcare facility if they were infants now, because I would have been dead worried about the security and safety of my children,” says Jain, adding — exactly what Chopra says is an important factor in India — that she had a support system at home to rely on.
Like Jain, Nanda Majumdar, CHRO, Waterfield Advisors, also has two children, one who’s 17 and the other around 20 – and like Jain, she too, relied on her family for support when they were little for the same reason. But in her capacity as a recruitment professional, Majumdar has also examined the value of having on-site childcare facilities closely.
“The idea of creating creches in offices was a hot topic in India, around 2014,” Majumdar recalls, “It was a mandate issued to corporates back – to provide a space in offices that women employees would have the option of using to care for their kids while at work. Back then, there was a lot of optimism around it; it represented a landmark shift towards the cause of gender diversity and inclusion. But it wasn’t really a hit with working mothers. Most of them preferred to leave their kids home or an environment where they were cared for by relatives or people very familiar to them.”
At the law firm, Nishith Desai Associates, where Majumdar worked some years ago, a separate space was provided for mothers, but there were few takers for this facility. “And for organizations, it just doesn’t make sense to create this infrastructure if it’s going to lie unused,” says Majumdar. “The high cost of real estate in Indian metros also makes this option unworkable, especially for smaller firms and startups,” adds Satyam Arora, CHRO, Rivaara Labs, pointing out that firms can support working parents in other ways. “What one realizes is that you need these kinds of arrangements all across the cities, either close to homes or offices, but not necessarily inside the office,” Majumdar says.
Experts identified several other roadblocks in instituting an on-site childcare facility:
Most people must travel long distances to get to work and accessing childcare facilities in offices would thus mean having to transport children in cramped train compartments at rush hour. Parents don’t want to subject children to pollution and the hazards of overcrowding.
Geographical and emotional boundaries
The pandemic highlighted the importance of having clear boundaries between work and personal life. For working mothers, bringing their children to work blurs this boundary. Besides, in India, most working mothers want their children to attend specific schools, and this often necessitates sending the children to specific childcare centers that can prepare them adequately. Aside from teachers who are well trained to care for their children, mothers also want their children to socialize as it helps in the development of important skills – learning how to talk, for example, and to share, and so on – and they want them to be around kids who live in the same neighbourhood as they’re likely to attend the same schools.
Technology to the rescue
While there was a time when parents worried about leaving their children at home to be cared for by staff, today, parents are more confident about entrusting their children to the care of helpers. With the help of police checks and national ID cards, parents can feel less worried about their children. Besides, the internet and easily set-up CCTV equipment allows working parents to monitor what’s going on at home as it happens.
While workspaces can set up childcare facilities, the other infrastructure a child may require – doctors, parks and so on – may not be available in commercial districts. Most people in India tend to use the services of doctors they’ve come to trust over time, and they are unlikely to trust other doctors with the health of their children. Parents want their children to be in a location where they know who they can reach out to in the event of an emergency, whether that’s a specialist or a friend.
“You need to arrive at critical mass for initiatives like these to be successful. Otherwise, it’s really an investment without returns. Neither the mother benefits as an employee, nor does the company achieve its real objectives, even though it may tick a ‘good employer’ box [by setting up an on-site creche],” says Majumdar, adding that most parents in India tend to prefer a pay packet for childcare rather than an on-site facility.
Jain adds, “Times have changed, and there is a change in the household structure, with joint families giving way to nuclear setups, coupled with many lifestyle changes: Couples are travelling more often, and their lives are busier. This is making the daycare industry indispensable, especially post Covid as companies return to hybrid models or flexi return models.”
Biren Anshu, CHRO, The Hi-Tech Robotic Systemz Ltd agrees, “Organisations have to become way more inclusive and that means really paying attention to how we approach the needs of all groups – which includes working mothers.”
This is vital if organisations want to create a better sense of belonging and connectedness – it’s not just about creating a better environment for employees; it’s just better business!