The debate that raged around Virat Kohli’s absence from the Test cricket team on the grounds of paternity leave eclipsed more serious issues. Tongues wagged when the Indian skipper returned home to his wife for the birth of their daughter in the midst of a Test series in Australia. One former Test cricketer, known more for his talk than his walk, criticised Kohli’s decision as a ‘modern phenomenon’ and was disappointed that, unlike his predecessor, he had prioritised family over nation. Another former Test cricketer, jumping to Kohli’s defence, quipped that back in the 1970s during his team’s tour of England, it was the Queen who gave him the news about the birth of his child. If he’d had a choice, he said, he would have done things differently.
Not all fathers are created equal, nor are they spoken for equally. Kohli’s celebrity and vociferous fan base allowed him to silence the snarks and have his way. Players of a less stellar stature in sporting events outside the limelight, holding onto less secure berths, have had to relinquish these privileges.
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Paternity leave is in fact a privilege masquerading as a right. And what use are rights when one cannot exercise them?
One wonders aloud if the skipper’s counterpart in Indian women’s cricket would have been cheered off the field with the same enthusiasm had she announced such a decision. At the time of writing, maternity leave doesn’t exist in Indian women’s cricket in concept or practice. Unlike Cricket Australia, which in 2019 announced a maternity leave policy for women players that supports them for up to 12 months while including a three-week paternity leave for male players.
Rewind to 2016. A certain dog-loving Indian politician, then a cabinet minister holding the portfolio of women and child development, remarked that she wanted evidence of men taking care of children before she granted them paternity leave, adding that it would just be misused as another holiday. The rub is that she made this enlightened observation after championing what was touted as a landmark bill that became law in August 2017, granting working women in India up to 26 weeks of maternity leave.
‘Misuse’ is an old trope that betrays an embedded patriarchy. Coming from a woman, it didn’t blunt the edge but exposed a familiar and fundamental problem with our understanding of parental roles, and reflected a deeply outmoded us-versus-them complex founded on flawed assumptions.
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While the law has compelled corporate cultures to lean towards inclusion and diversity, and offer a slew of benefits to women employees, it has brought to light different challenges. Despite more women entering the workplace, the scales remain tilted. Glass ceilings are still too high to crack. Biases in hiring and performance support (where workers of a certain gender are provided fewer opportunities or resources to succeed) continue to thwart women from succeeding in male-dominated work cultures, and the balance is especially skewed in traditional sectors where boys’ clubs call the shots. Further, ageism poses a hurdle for women returning to work after a break. They have to try twice as hard as men. And the law seems to barely touch the lives of women in non-formal economies.
Biologically, men and women have different physiologies and needs, but more and more parents — and not merely in heterosexual family units — are not only swapping parental roles but making their very definition fluid. That they share child-care duties makes them equally entitled to paid parental benefits that are inclusive and not discriminatory. Policies that truly benefit these people ought to be gender-agnostic, covering single parents, live-in or same-sex couples, or adoptive parents. The law, and public opinion, have been slow to catch up.
In the United States, where progressive policies have been frequently written into law (at least until 2016), women have no right to maternity leave. It is left to the discretion of fair-minded employers to offer them that benefit. Lawmakers are lobbying to win American women this right, but it’s going to take a lot to emulate Croatia, where working women are entitled to 30 weeks of fully paid maternity leave.
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Without a mindset shift to back it, no law can have teeth. Our inherent biases lead us to deem women working in hospitality, entertainment and sport as less employable after life events like marriage and motherhood. Our reinforced prejudices effectively hinder their life choices. Our myopic and populist laws perpetuate stereotypes. These are fundamental flaws in our collective psyche that we must address on priority. Now that a law has paved the way, cultural sensitisation must follow.
Until a time when men and women, irrespective of occupation, gender or reputation, can make life choices without risk to their careers or livelihoods, it’s going to be a sticky wicket.
(A journalist and cartoonist in exile, Bijoy’s enjoying an action-packed career in Corporate Communications as he waits for the storm to blow over)