Why New Maternity Bill Has Women In India's Start-Up Ecosystem Worried

Why New Maternity Bill Has Women In India's Start-Up Ecosystem Worried

Only 23% of women in India are in the workforce, compared to 75% of men. (Representational image)

In a country where barely nine per cent of start-up founders are women, and less than five per cent of the start-up workforce comprises women, the glass ceiling now might see yet another layer added to it. Women across the start-up ecosystem are expressing concerns that the new maternity bill, which increases leave to six months for new mothers from the present 3, albeit a positive policy for most working women, could make it even tougher for women to be hired here. Especially for early stage start-ups where roles are largely action-based and a six month absence could be a deal breaker.

"Start-ups historically have not added up on the women in workforce numbers, not because of the bill. It's about the 'bro culture', the way they work. It's a big boys club and most of the work happens through informal networks. And with the new provisions of the bill, it may not work out for them," shares Sairee Chahal, founder of Sheroes, a platform for career opportunities for women. "Some start-ups start off with two or three employees, where one person is heading the business side, one is working on technology. Then they grow to six or seven, and eventually 20 or larger. They're still building their start-up story, and business is the focus. In such a scenario, HR departments and policies may not be high up on the priority list," she adds.

Cash and productivity concerns could impact hiring, especially when funds are tight and most entrepreneurs favour running a tight ship. Smriti, a start-up employee and a mother of two, expresses her concerns over the capacity of start-ups to adhere with the new bill provisions, saying, "I wouldn't join a start-up if I was having a child and needed time and they wouldn't comply with the new bill." The new bill also requires companies with over 30 women or 50 employees to provide a creche service - a cost which some say start-ups might not be able to meet.

According to a survey conducted by citizen engagement platform Local Circle, which covered 4,300 start-ups and SMEs across the country, 40 per cent of the respondents said they will consider the new bill while hiring, 26 per cent stated they would prefer hiring male employees, while 22 per cent said it would have no impact on their hiring policy altogether. The rest chose not to respond.

However, despite some employers saying they could be uncomfortable with the 26-week paid leave and also unable to guarantee a job when the leave ends, other entrepreneurs are more hopeful. Dr Navya Singh, psychologist and co-founder of the mental healthcare app wayForward, says, "I'm a new mother and an entrepreneur. The only way I was able to balance work and motherhood is because I run a start-up, where the work culture is flexible in terms of timings and space." Chandrika Pasricha, founder of the flexible recruitment platform FlexingIt, shares, "Start-ups have always been flexible in terms of work culture. And they will find flexible solutions to this, such as working from home, or part time work."

Only 23 per cent of women in India are in the workforce, compared to 75 per cent of men. And while the new maternity bill is a positive policy for several working women, it might end up reducing female participation in start-ups, making it harder for the ecosystem to shatter that glass ceiling.

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