Women at work

Marriage, pregnancy, children? The unfair questions asked of women job seekers in India

A bank in Chennai was this week forced to drop such questions from its recruitment form after the Bank Employees Association protested.

Companies and recruiters in India routinely ask prospective women employees questions about their marital status and maternity plans, yet the country has no laws or norms governing such discrimination.

While a small number of firms and recruiters also ask men similar questions, these are usually general queries about their families. Employers seem to reserve the pointed, and sometimes downright insensitive, questions for women.

“At two of the companies that interviewed me this year, I was asked openly whether I am married or whether I plan to get married in the near future,” said Aisha, a 28-year-old Mumbai resident who did not want to reveal her full name as she is still looking for a job.

Aisha has also come across a company in Mumbai that has a clear policy of not hiring women if they are pregnant, soon to be married, or planning to have children soon. “I don’t think male candidates are asked about their marriage plans, because in our culture it’s just understood that the woman is the one who moves to wherever her husband lives,” said Aisha.

This week, for example, Canara Bank was forced to remove such questions on its recruitment form after the Bank Employees' Federation of India protested against them.

For the past few months, candidates applying for jobs at the bank's branches in Chennai had been faced with a set of rather shocking questions on the recruitment form. The company reportedly wanted to know whether women candidates were pregnant and when they had their last period, and clearly stated that pregnancy would be a bar for immediate appointment.

The form also specified that people suffering from some kinds of ailments – including cancer, HIV and hypertension – would not be considered “fit" for employment.

But Indian law helps only women who are already employed. The Maternity Benefits Act of 1961 provides for 12 weeks of maternity leave for all employed women, and makes it illegal for an employer to dismiss or discharge a pregnant employee from service during the leave period.

Human resource executives acknowledge that concerns about pregnancy and marriage preoccupy employers when they hire, but they believe some of it is justified.

“Pregnancy is a health issue and any employer would think twice before taking on someone who would need to be on maternity leave soon after being hired,” said Ananth Srinivasan, the head of a human resources consultancy firm in Gurgaon.

Asking women about wedding plans may be discriminatory, but that, too, is common across the board, said Srinivasan. “Even women employers are reluctant to hire or promote someone who is going to get married if they feel it could affect the company’s work,” he said.

Some recruiters, however, insist that an employer’s interest in marriage and family is more innocuous than it may seem.

“While recruiting employees, I have asked both men and women about their families and children, because people with school-going children often have concerns about jobs that require frequent transfers,” said A Rabindranath, a director at Gurgaon-based management consulting firm Hay Group. “These were common questions a decade ago, but these days some people perceive it as being offensive.”

Is the issue really about a growing sensitivity to seemingly innocuous or legitimate recruitment criteria? Women who feel they have been passed over by recruiters because of their personal plans to marry or have children would not agree.

“As a practice, companies should ask women only those questions that they would also ask men, whether it is about marriage, children or child-care leave,” said Poonam Barua, founder-chairman of the New Delhi-based Forum for Women in Leadership, a national forum that works towards gender sensitivity in the Indian corporate world. “That is the only way to create a level playing field.”

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