Dictionary Meaning: the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities.
Dictionary Meaning: the quality of being fair and impartial.
At first glance, they both seem the same. Words that define the quality of being just, and providing uniform opportunities to everyone. There is a stark difference though.
Equality achieves fairness by treating everyone the same regardless of need.
Equity does so by putting said need at the forefront of everything.
You’ll know in a bit why these words are important. Grammar session done; now let me dive into the facts of the matter.
Some time ago, we asked the company if we should introduce period leave, and relook at our paternity leave —two policies intricately linked with gender. We knew these were thorny issues, and hearing everyone’s opinion was important to us.
Zomato famously irked India when it introduced period leave earlier in 2020. But it wasn’t the first. In fact, the Bihar government has provided two extra days of casual leave for women employees since 1992. In 1947, Japan became the first country in the world to grant women the right to menstrual leave.
So, were we doing something new? Absolutely not. Why did it take us time to implement this policy then? Because, bias.
In the course of thinking about whether or not to include period leave into our system, I have become acutely aware of my personal biases in this regard. I am not someone who has horrible periods. I don’t have debilitating pain, and I’m good at hiding my mood swings. At times, I’ve had extreme reactions to situations — the curse of the 1st day — for which I’ve gone back and apologized. I do have colleagues, friends, and family who have acute pain and discomfort during this time.
One of the critiques of period leave is that it bundles all women up in a category labeled ‘On Period, Must Rest.’ By not giving them this leave, however, aren’t we just putting them in another category labeled ‘Can Handle Period, Is Forever Fine’? I can handle my periods; what about those who can’t? What about the women who are forced to come to work because they would rather save their medical and sick leave for something more important than a mere period?
Asked to evaluate this objectively on behalf of the company, I have had to acknowledge, accept, and embrace both the differences and similarities associated with ‘gender’. We are biologically different as women, and we need to appreciate this and provide a space for inclusion. Placing women in either category as above doesn’t solve the issue. Asking them to camouflage a biological necessity as ‘sickness’ and take a medical leave instead isn’t helpful, either.
Giving them the option to choose whether they want to avail a ‘period leave’ depending on how they feel, is. Hence, we added 12 period leave days per year to our policy.
Figuring out paternity leave was even harder.
So far, we’ve had a 5-day leave policy as per traditional practices. We knew, however, that this isn’t enough.
Women are given 6 months postpartum, and again this is ruled by biology. It, however, rules out any window for new dads to bond with their children, or to be part of their newborn’s growth process. It rules out any window for them to be there for their spouses, or be the fathers they imagine themselves being. We didn’t want anyone apologizing for not being available for work because of their parental duties — we wanted to enable them to proudly hold the bastion at home, without feeling guilty for slacking off work.
But how much leave time was enough?
In the US, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act says that organizations with more than 50 workers should provide 12 weeks of unpaid paternity leave. In reality, only a few (about 14%) offer paternity leave by choice. In Sweden, new dads get about 90 days paternity leave with 80% pay of their normal salary, with both parents getting a total of 480 days off. Since there is no set rule here, we held an internal discussion to understand what the dads-to-be in the company would like, and how they thought this would affect them.
An inherited, unconscious bias is at play here as well. That ancient belief that men are made to hunt beasts and slay demons, and women are supposed to take care of home and hearth has led to many men neglecting their responsibilities towards their family. Research says that paternity leave has direct benefits in that it stops women from dropping out of the workforce, and fosters closer bonds between men and their children. And if you know anything about us, you know that we are all for science! Extending our paternity leave policy from the usual 5 days to a month is our way of ensuring that our Hacksters and their families can experience the joys of parenthood without any glitches.
It doesn’t stop with policies though.
I have always said that companies need to put people first and the policies will follow. Japan might have introduced period leave seven decades ago, but a Guardian Report says that women in the country loathe taking this time off, worrying it might antagonize male colleagues, or create a sense of weakness. Similarly with the paternity leave — in countries where these leaves are unpaid, we can imagine just how many men would want to ask for them.
When the new leave policy was formally announced on our internal company channels, our team flooded us with messages to tell us how excited they were. They said we had done the right thing. And that’s all the validation that matters. I’m glad our women don’t have to worry about speaking the dreaded ‘P’ word in office anymore, or our men don’t have to take last-minute work calls when on a diaper-shopping spree.
Policies don’t create equality, or an equitable workplace (remember the words I used before?). Creating an atmosphere where differences are respected — even biological ones — and common ground is a safe space for both genders is what an equal, and equitable, workplace is all about. I’m proud of the work that HackerEarth has done so far to create that safe space for our employees. I also know that our efforts to create bias-free, people-centric workplaces will never stop. Period.