When Harkirat Singh’s (39) daughter was born seven years ago he took five days of annual leave, as his company did not have a paternity leave policy. He asked them to consider implementing one, which they eventually did shortly after his daughter’s birth, the four-day allowance unchanged since then.
“Most organizations only offer fathers a few days off at the time of childbirth. But what about later? Childcare doesn’t end with birth,” says the Jaipur-based airline pilot. “Most men will not even ask for it. Taking a few days off when your child is born is acceptable, but requesting leave later has a stigma attached to it.” Singh’s observation spotlights Indian men’s hesitation to excuse themselves from work for parenting responsibilities.
Not every company offers paternity leave, but several organisations provide new fathers time off ranging from a few days to a few months. However, many male professionals are reluctant to take lengthy leaves. A deeply ingrained mindset of childcare being the mother’s domain, a fear of being branded as flippant about their careers or weak by their peers, and a non-supportive work and family environment largely contribute to this reluctance.
Before the pandemic it is estimated that Indian women did ten times more unpaid work than men, which increased by 30 percent during the pandemic according to consulting firm Dalberg. These roles of women as caregivers and men as breadwinners are continually reinforced by society.
But there is also a gradual change with increasing awareness and exposure; evolving family units where both partners have to be involved parents; and a resilient few, who are unfazed by what people may think.
Not just paternity leave
“Men are reluctant to ask for any kind of leave, not just paternity,” says Swati Nagpaul, human resources leader with a hospitality brand in Mumbai. “Those in nuclear families are slightly more open now when requesting for parental leave. But if in an extended family, there is an expectation that the folks at home should manage the kids.”
Sandip Kataria (33), business development head with a Noida-based engineering, procurement and construction company, was based abroad six years ago when he took all ten days of allotted paternity leave to return to India for his son’s birth. “But long leaves are not appreciated in the private sector.” he says, adding that his company’s culture is not encouraging of male employees’ participation in childcare beyond paternity leave.
“Most companies view maternity and paternity leave as a financial burden,” says Nagpaul. “But they don’t see it as fostering goodwill and a better connection with their employees.”
It’s interesting to observe the progress made by some non-Indian work cultures in helping men be more involved parents. James Hawkes (32), a British citizen working remotely from Delhi, joined the UK data science firm, Bays Consulting Limited recently as head of delivery. He was not entitled to paternity leave as a new starter, but it was offered to him as a goodwill gesture. “I was comfortable taking two weeks of paternity leave in one stretch, as it made sense to be ‘out of the office’ properly, and I put measures in place to cover my absence,” says Hawkes. His wife and he try to split their day equally in caring for their one-month-old son. “I am lucky that my employer is family-focused so I don’t feel pressure to return to work as soon as possible,” he adds.
Working in a global environment with exposure to different cultures has also made a difference. While on overseas assignments, Anuj Vadehra (39), a strategy and market development professional in Gurugram, observed his male colleagues stepping out during the workday to help with their children’s routines, their calendars unapologetically blocked during this time. Four years ago, Vadehra took five days of paternity leave for his daughter’s birth and is now encouraged to see the current revised fifteen-day policy. “The organization’s acknowledgment of this need is a confidence booster,” he says.
A changing and supportive ecosystem
Like Hawkes, there are others who demonstrate how a supportive work environment encourages shared parenting. Hunny Girdhar (30) took thirty days of his eighty-four day paternity leave, staggered over the few months after his son’s birth in January 2019. “Even while working from home, I took two weeks of paternity leave, ‘working in shifts’ with my wife when our child was not sleeping through the night,” says Girdhar, a food scientist at a Gurgaon MNC. “A supportive work culture is important, but I also have a supportive family who understands that a father needs to be an active parent.”
Kavita Yadav, psychologist and parenting coach at JiNa.LivingPositively in Gurugram, has observed a change over the last decade in fathers becoming more involved parents. “This is because couples are moving away from their parents’ support system to other cities for work. So, they have to own the responsibility of being parents and work out ways to connect with their children.”
The pandemic exposed the gender disparity in housework and childcare responsibilities, but it helped many fathers participate in their children’s routines. “I am working 100% remotely, so I can do most of my job with my child strapped to my front in a sling if I want to,” Hawkes says.
“Based on my interaction with parents, I have seen a positive shift in fatherhood during lockdown and in work from home,”Yadav says, adding that the fathers “observed and shared in the work, which their wives usually did for their kids all day.”
But for some, working from home negated the need for leave. “An acquaintance of mine didn’t take paternity leave when his baby was born recently, since he was already working from home,” says Kataria, highlighting the unwillingness to disengage completely from work, even with available leave, to focus on your child.
It is evident that policies are ineffective in isolation. “These cannot be devised as a tick mark,” says Nagpaul. “While education and sensitization across the organization is essential, the newer generation must be taught how important not just paternity leave, but any leave, is for health and the added value you bring when you’ve had time off.”