Many Banks in India Are Denying Work to Pregnant Women, Perpetuating Gender Exclusion
The discrimination is commonplace and regressive, making it harder for new mothers to re-enter the workforce and demand adequate welfare.
A familiar script is playing out in the corporate world. The Indian Bank’s hiring guidelines audaciously refuse to hire pregnant women who have crossed the 12-week mark. The said candidate is “temporarily unfit until the confinement is over,” and women’s re-entry into jobs will be considered once they produce a fitness certificate validated by a medical practitioner.
Earlier this year, the State Bank of India also declared pregnant women temporarily unfit and offered the option of employment only four months after delivery. These aren’t isolated instances. While some banks and companies legitimize these biases in their hiring “guidelines,” others continue to exercise a pervasive bias against pregnant women rather unofficially.
These arbitrary rules are all but discriminatory and illegal. Several activists flagged the“anti-women” decisions and objected to the regressive nature of these regulations. On Monday, the Delhi Commission of Women also issued a notice to the Indian Bank to withdraw these guidelines. As they pointed out, restricting pregnant women from employment opportunities is illegal as it contradicts the maternity benefits conferred under the Code of Social Security, 2020. Moreover, discrimination on the basis of sex also grievously violates people’s fundamental rights.
The Indian Bank, so far, has maintained that these aren’t new guidelines and it has not actively denied employment to pregnant women. Yet, it bears mentioning that these are existing guidelines, and can still be exercised at any point. In its defense, the Indian Bank said: “…in case of pregnancy, which is less than 12 weeks, the candidates are considered as fit for joining the bank. Post 12 weeks of pregnancy, candidates are allowed to join with a fitness certificate from a registered medical practitioner certifying them fit for taking up employment in Bank.” The requirement of a fitness certificate still lives and breathes; a tiny but assertive asterisk is present throughout.
“The Tamil Nadu Grama Bank (TNGB) sponsored by Indian Bank has also issued similar guidelines prohibiting women with more than six months of pregnancy from joining its services and laid a condition that they would be allowed to join only after three months of delivery after medical examination. This retrograde clause is highly discriminatory to women,” the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) said in its statement last week.
For the corporate and capitalistic structures, the workforce is but a game of asset management. People, their mechanical skills, and productive efficiency are assets; women — pregnant individuals and new mothers, in particular — are perceived to be liabilities owing to the misplaced bias around their competence and commitment to the job. The Bank Workers’ Unity, in response to SBI’s decision, also said that “this is nothing but gross gender discrimination.” It is important to note that the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, allows working women in India up to three months of maternity leave.
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So pervasive is the belief that it has come to be understood as the “maternal wall bias,” indicating discrimination that many working mothers encounter. The maternal wall is by far the strongest and most evident form of gender bias that thrives in the workplace. More so because the consequences of such discriminatory and exclusionary prejudices are immediate: women inevitably lose out on opportunities as their entry into jobs is delayed. This creates a situation where women systemically lose out on senior positions and better wages.
Moreover, the belief against the “unfit” pregnant women further stiffens the barriers around new mothers’ re-entry into the workforce. There are enough anecdotes, reports, and studies detailing to a vivid degree how bias against new mothers continues unchecked. In a landmark 2007 study, researchers found marketing and business openings preferred hiring women without children over working mothers. Moreover, the study participants also found mothers to be “less competent and committed,” further recommending they start out at a lower salary. The real-life impact of discouraging pregnant women from the workforce could be similar. According to an Indian study in 2018, companies were increasingly hiring fewer women to avoid offering them maternity leave. In this work culture, the cost of inclusion just didn’t add up.
Moreover, in several cases, the bias against pregnant women often disguises itself as “organizational cuts.” One such employee noted in 2019 how she was asked to leave after informing her team of her pregnancy. “The HR personnel called me for a meeting to discuss ‘financial problems’ faced by the company,” and there seemed to be an urgent need to downsize. The woman’s position was immediately eliminated. “To me, this clearly appears to be a decision driven by my pregnancy,” she wrote. In another instance, an advertising agency told a woman “Why don’t you go on a break and resume after your delivery? You look dull.'”
Existing guidelines that call to question the mental, emotional, and physical strength of pregnant women then create a vicious cycle. “Such instructions issued by bank managements will further adversely impact on job opportunities for women. The number of women employees in banks are dismally low at 25%,” the AIDWA noted. Female labor force participation has also withered during the pandemic and lockdown, further restricting opportunities and space for women to advance in the workforce.
The consequences play out more bleakly for women in unorganized work sectors, where pregnant women may face arbitrary firing without any social security cushions or promise of employment later. They also make it harder for new mothers to re-enter the workforce and demand adequate welfare and rights, for instance, the necessity of workplace crèches.
The maternal wall is stiff, ever so tall, and made of bricks plastered with social biases. With every refusal to budge, the wall just keeps getting higher, pushing workplace equity out of the line of sight.
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.