So, the weekend was washed away in the deluge of arguments in favour of & against the First Day of Period (FOP) policy in the workplace. The starting point in this latest Twitter debate was when digital content agency Culture Machine announced the launch of its FOP policy in early June. This was followed by the company starting a Change.org petition to the Ministry of Child Development to introduce this policy across all organisations. Predictably, this was followed by arguments both lucid & banal in favour of and against the policy. While many have made the case that this is a step towards shaping the workplace in a way that accommodates women’s unique needs, others have argued that such a move will be construed as a sign of weakness, also inhibiting the cause of women’s recruitment even further.
I’m looking at this issue from the prism of a working woman and one who employs women in her team and household.
As a woman employee, I’ve realised that we will always have ‘special needs’ and anybody who thinks those needs will taper off as the child grows up, is fooling herself. These needs are as much about our unique biological functions (menstruation, childbirth, breast-feeding, menopause) as our social roles (mother, home manager, daughter-in-law). I could shout myself hoarse asking why it is so, but the fact is it has largely been my responsibility to ensure my kid’s vaccinations were on time, that her diet meets certain standards, that her school work is up to date. Her teachers, coach, our neighbours and our maids, unfailingly contact me whenever there is an issue concerning the household or our daughter. I am not the exception – 8 out of 10 working women I know, lead similar lives.
My current workplace has fantastic HR policies which strive to offer employees excellent work-life balance. We have a work-from-home policy, we have remote access-enabled workstations, and my manager has never asked me ‘why’ whenever I’ve applied for leave. Nevertheless, there have been instances when a pressing requirement at home has clashed with a commitment at work, and the former has taken a backseat. Nobody forced me to, it simply had to be done. The reality today is that companies are hiring increasingly lean teams which means there really isn’t much scope to transfer or share your workload with another. In such a scenario, companies will prefer the more dependable, the safer bet, when it comes to hiring.
Speaking as a woman who has managed all-women teams and employs women at her home, I’d like to share an incident that took place in 2015. We were living in Abu Dhabi then where it’s fairly common to employ men for domestic chores. Frankly, the degree of professionalism I observed in those men was far better than any ‘maid’ I’ve ever had – no gossip, no demands for ‘extra clothes’ or ‘salary advance’, minimal fuss and far quicker service. When Rajendra, my domestic help, had to return to India as his visa had expired and I was looking for a replacement, I had a distinct preference for a male helper.
They just suited me better. Till I met Laxmi, who I learnt would be deported back to India if she couldn’t supplement her income to meet her basic visa requirements. I don’t think I chose Laxmi as much as I gave in to her brother’s entreaties. Was I very happy with my choice? No.
Much later, after I’d returned to India and re-joined work, I realised that my mindset was a reflection of how HR works. It is about putting my money on the headcount that serves me best.
As a part of the Diversity & Inclusion CoE in my organisation, I know how difficult it is to get the ‘right’ women candidates for many of the senior-level recruitments we do. Added to this is the problem of a steep drop in women employees as they advance from the Assistant Manager to Manager roles – most of them get married and are either forced by circumstances or choose to quit. Then comes maternity and the guilt associated with long hours, not being able to breast-feed your child, lack of a support system, is enormous. I am not sure introducing different kinds of leave policy for each of these situations which women tackle is the answer. Why then I’d argue, we must also introduce some sort of leave for employees whose children are appearing for their Board exams, or for those whose children qualify for school or state level sports competitions! I know of a female colleague whose son has to travel alone for his chess competitions as her manager has refused to grant her leave so frequently (3-4 days every few months.)
The answer in my view, doesn’t lie in Policy making, instead must be seen from the prism of Culture Building. Yes, I know that while the former is binding, the other is subjective and may not ensure a uniform employee experience. But Policy Making alone won’t suffice – make FOP mandatory and you will still have women swallowing pain killers and turning up at work because that’s what their role or manager demands. I’d much rather go with manager sensitization and a focused and continuous thrust on making the workplace as employee friendly as possible. Trust me, all it takes is an understanding manager. Replace and reward people, not policies, is what I’d stress on.