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When pregnant women don’t face bias at work

  • Despite companies trying to create a gender-neutral image, pregnancy discrimination while hiring is still very real
  • Here’s what happens when firms embrace expectant mothers

(Photo: iStock)

When Mamata Kulkarni, head of strategy, Bayer Zydus Pharma, was told that she had got the job at the pharmaceutical company, eight years ago, she was elated. But before she could accept the offer formally, Kulkarni found out she was pregnant. Which company would want to hire a person who would need a long-term leave within a few months of joining, she thought. “I felt the company wouldn’t consider me. But I thought of asking them to consider me in a year and a half’s time," says Kulkarni, who is in her early 40s. The meeting with the hiring manager, however, played out differently; he wanted her to join. “I remember him saying, ‘If I don’t take you on board now, it will be discrimination.’ In fact, I was handed the offer letter before I walked out of Bayer office that day," Kulkarni recalls.

Kulkarni’s experience is not common. Although policies and attitudes of organizations have become more gender-friendly over the years, they still show considerable restraint when it comes to considering pregnant candidates, even if they qualify for the role. Kulkarni’s apprehensions, after all, stemmed from the fact that she hadn’t heard of any company who had done this sort of hiring.

Tanya Naik, director (payments), PayPal India (R)
Tanya Naik, director (payments), PayPal India (R) (Photo: Mint)

Tanya Naik, director (payments), PayPal India, calls herself and those who have been able to switch jobs while pregnant “unique cases". The 33-year-old joined the PayPal team in 2017, while she was three months pregnant. Like Kulkarni, she too assumed her hiring manager would reject her after learning about the pregnancy. “Many companies have unsaid policies, which don’t work in the favour of the pregnant women. There are exceptions like what happened with me... . But these are far and few in between. It’s not the norm."

Lata Dhir, who teaches organizational behaviour, leadership and design thinking at SPJIMR, Mumbai, says that it all depends on the mindset and the progressive nature of companies and their culture. “In general, organizations are under pressure for deliverables within a short period of time. When it’s realized that the female candidate is pregnant, it goes without saying that she will be on paid maternity leave for six months (outflow from the company with no deliverables). There seems to be a tendency to avoid getting into these circumstances. This is mostly a conscious decision and the biases are deeply set," she says.

Performance impact

Though Naik was happy she had got the job, she was apprehensive whether she would be able to do justice to the role. While she was unable to put in long hours, which other team members were putting in, Naik worked till the last day of delivery. What also helped was that no one made her feel she wasn’t doing enough. “You want to deliver and work more for companies, who show empathy and recognize that it’s difficult at this stage," she says. However, in certain high demanding jobs like sales or where mobility is required, Naik realises that it’s unavoidable for companies to overlook pregnant candidates. “For other roles, it’s just a question of being unbiased and taking a call on the person’s capability rather than biological status," she says.

Bhulakshmi Tankasala, 30, who joined French company Thales India, last October, while she was in her first trimester of pregnancy, too wanted to give her best at the new job. “Initially I was concerned, as the domain was different and it took me time to understand and learn. But my boss would tell me not to take stress. Even the team was very supportive because of which I was there till the eight month of my pregnancy," says Bengaluru-based Tankasala, who is a talent acquisition specialist at the company.

Her manager, Suresh Naik, admits that while the company’s culture is against discrimination of any sorts, he was little concerned about target deliverables that the new resource would have to achieve, so he discussed with his boss. “My boss was clear that our company culture values human resources and so we stuck to our decision," says Suresh.

Managing immediate work

But how do managers work through the dilemma of achieving business targets attached to the resource who will go on a long leave? PayPal India’s managing director Anupam Pahuja, who was involved in Naik’s recruitment, says when Naik went on her maternity leave, the company moved people around in different roles and filled the gap. “She didn’t skip a beat when she came back. I feel a lot of apprehensions and issues are our own creations," he says.

At Bayer Group, K.S. Harish, HR head (South Asia), says Kulkarni’s absence provided an opportunity for junior colleagues to take initiative and be more involved in strategic work. “We couldn’t get a short-term replacement for her role as it was a fairly big role but her workload was taken by her boss and it also gave an opportunity to next level leaders," he says.

Benefits of equal chance

Statistics around participation of female labour force in India show that women exit workplaces in substantial numbers every year during maternity, and the talent deficit this creates is huge, highlights Saundarya Rajesh, founder president of Avtar Group, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm. So, how do you change the mindset of the hiring managers to being more receptive? “It makes huge business sense for a company if the skill that an expectant mother brings in is far more exceeding than the number of days that she will go on leave, or for that matter, stay on a flexible working option. The skill is going to reap in more efficiency that will result in the bottom line," she says.

Prof. Dhir says it’s understandable for organizations to view pregnancy as an extended leave, thereby affecting targets, and that certain jobs and tasks offered to pregnant women may become an issue. “However, it is the nature of the job, task and role that should be under consideration and not being a female or being pregnant," she says. PayPal’s Pahuja agrees. As long as organizations make peace with the fact that everyone will go through some sort of life event at some point in time in their life, they are on a good wicket, he says. “Does that mean you stop and start your work every single time somebody has a life event? It’s a part of life. And people remember how you treated them during these events. They are more loyal and deliver more," he adds. Bayer’s Harish is optimistic that with time, more organizations will follow the suit and change their attitude towards pregnant women. However, in organizations that treat its employees as headcounts or as transactional cost, this would be a challenge.

But it’s not just organizations and hiring managers, mindset of women employees too needs to change, points out Kulkarni. “When I walked into that meeting in Bayer, I was expecting that they would not make an offer. Women themselves have this mindset that if they are planning for a family or are already pregnant, they don’t make an attempt to explore opportunities because they’re too scared to get out of what they believe is a comfort zone, or they assume ‘this is not going to work’. When women see more such cases like mine being openly discussed, it’s going to bring awareness."

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