A leading public sector bank of India came out with new guidelines in which they stated that women more than three months pregnant will be considered “temporary unfit” to work and they can join the bank within four months after the delivery. While the guideline obviously seems to discriminate based on the gender of employees, it also sets a dangerous precedent for other companies that might consider the same for their female employees.
After much backlash from all quarters, the bank had to suspend the new guidelines. It is important to address the “unfit” remark made for pregnant women and if it is at all true. SheThePeople spoke to obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Sudeshna Ray over the controversial guidelines. Ray as a medical professional does not believe that pregnant women are unfit to work. She said, “Women should be given more benefits at work during pregnancy. By giving birth, women contribute to the progression of life and pregnancy should be celebrated as progression and not considered as regression in any aspect.”
Pregnant Women Unfit To Work?
Ray added, ” Pregnancy is not a disease. It is naturally protected by the body. One can work till the day of delivery if her health permits. It’s ultimately a woman’s choice along with her doctors advice whether she can or will work.” If a pregnant woman is healthy and wants to work even till the day of the delivery, what right does her workplace have in stopping her?
It does not take an expert to point out that women employees are already disadvantaged in the workforce.
From pay gap to unfavourable work environment, women have to cross many hurdles to have a stable professional career. A LinkedIn report from 2021 stated that 37 percent Indian women said that they get paid less than men. The same report mentioned that 85 percent women missed out on a raise or promotion because of their gender.
A report by Monster Salary Index Survey 2019 also had similar insights to highlight. It stated that women in India earn 19 per cent less than men. Research studies have shown how companies discriminate against women based on potential or realised pregnancy.
In 2016, when the government of India amended the Maternity Benefit Act 1961 by increasing the maternity leave period from 12 weeks to 26 weeks, it came as a blessing for working women who wanted to have children. However, the amendment made many companies skeptical about hiring married women who might conceive in the future. In fact, women were asked during job interviews about their plans to get married, have children among other personal decisions in order to consider them for the job.
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Adrija Sengupta, a Human Resource professional, told SheThePeople that every pregnant employee experience is different. When she was pregnant with her child, the company was going through a crisis and everyone had to give their best to not get fired.
Sengupta said, “When I got to know that the company is going to lay off some of the employees, I knew I would be one of those employees because I was pregnant at the time. I had to give extra hours and deal with massive pressure every day to prove my worth at the company. Even in the ninth month of my pregnancy, I was going to working. I did consider my health and ran with everything with my doctor and honestly, I gave extra because I could but I would have liked if my company gave me some benefits during that time.”
When women ask for gender equality, they are not asking to be seen as men.
“I do not believe that pregnant employees are unfit to work and with some adjustments in their working hours and added leaves, they perform just like any other employee. Large multinational companies can afford to give added benefits to pregnant women in addition to the mandatory six months maternity leave but when it comes to mid-level firms and the smaller ones, I have seen reluctance,” Sengupta added. In her 10 year long career, Sengupta has seen many women working till the day of childbirth with little or no discomfort.
It is no doubt wrong to expect a pregnant woman to be as productive as any other employee, it is also wrong to assume that they would be unproductive or “unfit”. The discrimination against pregnant women at workplaces risks hampering women’s career growth and also implies that women cannot get equal access because of biological differences with men.
When women ask for gender equality, they are not asking to be seen as men. They are asking for equal access so that they can participate with men as equal partners.