Below The Belt
Pregnancy a curse for Indian working women: New Myntra ad misleading
Most mothers pursuing a career are torn between keeping their bosses happy, cradling sick infants and running homes.
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Popular clothing brands, Anouk and Myntra, which seem to be taking up controversial subjects to promote their products - targeted largely at an upward, Internet savvy, working, educated, urban, woman audience - have played with the theme of pregnancy in their latest video featuring actress Radhika Apte. The advertisement, which has gone viral on social media, comes a few months after Anouk's commercial featuring a much-in-love lesbian couple, and now shows off the steely resolve of a pregnant Apte.
In the advertisement, the protagonist (Apte) decides to take her woman boss head on when she faces discrimination owing to her pregnancy, and resolves to start her own firm instead, literally walking out on her employer, not willing to compromise her flourishing career because of a baby bump.
In a country that has traditionally glorified motherhood and marriage - where childless women are cruelly labelled "banjh", the birth of a son still preferred over a daughter's, a mother supposed to be the ultimate emblem of self-sacrifice, and where we are still dependent on ageing grandparents and maids to raise children - is it really much of a surprise when Deloitte's November 2011 report, "Women in the Boardroom: A Global Perspective", reveals that of the 1,112 directorships of 100 companies listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), merely 5.3 per cent were occupied by women?
According to the report, India's biggest competitor, China, has had more women in the board room, at 8.5 per cent.
A March-April 2015 survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) shows that many first-time mothers have been opting to raise children by giving their careers up.
"A growing number of highly-educated women in urban India are abandoning their professional lives to become full-time mothers because raising children while maintaining a serious career becomes complex," reported the same survey, that lists interactions with nearly 400 new mothers in the age group of 25-30 years in ten cities of Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Indore, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Mumbai and Lucknow.
One-fourth of the total number of women who had recently delivered their first child, had quit their jobs to start a family, with most claiming to get back to their careers once their kids entered school.
The majority of the women had Master's degrees and were professionally qualified, but cited conflict of priorities as the main reason to give up their careers.
Nuclear families with fathers in transferable jobs, long working hours in IT, media, hospitality, advertising, travel and consulting sectors, coupled with taxing hours of commute had probably made it emotionally tough for new mothers to maintain a healthy work-life balance. A BBC report in April this year mentions a survey of 1,000 women working in Delhi and its neighbouring areas, and found that only 18-34 per cent of India's married women continued to work after having a child.
In September, Union women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi proposed that the three-month maternity leave presently granted to working women under the Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, be increased to eight months. Even e-commerce player Flipkart extended statutory maternity leave to 24 weeks (from 12 weeks) along with four months of flexi-working hours with full pay, and, if needed, one-year career break without pay to attract and retain women employees.
A number of companies such as Vodafone and Accenture also recently announced enhanced maternity benefits. However, just a few companies like HCL Technologies, Godrej and Hindustan Unilever (HUL) offer 180 days (more than 24 weeks) of maternity leave to all employees. HUL only recently extended the policy to new recruits as well.
And yet, in a largely patriarchal system, perhaps this makes little difference. Human resource departments of companies often ask a married candidate what her plans are, mentally striking her out of the rat race, and supportive husbands and in-laws are still a minority, with most women torn between keeping their bosses happy, cradling sick infants and running homes, making it a tough choice for a lot of successful career women - one of empowerment as opposed to entitlement.
In such a milieu, maybe, the Myntra advertisement is trying to deliver a strong women empowerment message, making feminism fashionable. But let's not forget that 75 per cent of women in India are employed in the unorganised sector and work without benefits. Is the message thus directed only towards the other 25 per cent?