While a section of corporate India is consciously choosing gender-sensitive policies like flexible hours and crèche services for working mothers, there are companies where women still have to face discrimination and harassment when they announce that they are pregnant.

An advertising agency in Mumbai was served a legal notice in January for allegedly denying maternity leave to an employee and firing her instead.

The notice was sent on January 27, less than two months after Aarti Khatri Ningoo, a client servicing executive, was asked to leave her job at Eggfirst Advertising Pvt Ltd, a Goregaon-based company. Ningoo was five months pregnant at that time and, she says, her maternity leave application had been ignored by the company heads since her third month in October. While the company claims Ningoo was asked to leave because of “performance deficiency” and “internal badmouthing”, she has now taken her case to the labour court in Mumbai.

Being fired from a job on account of pregnancy may be uncommon and illegal under the Maternity Benefit Act. But experts from the industry believe it is symptomatic of a more pervasive discrimination against working mothers in Indian organisations.

A common phenomenon

Indian companies are notorious for asking female job candidates intrusive questions about their marital status and maternity plans – questions that are almost never asked of prospective male employees. When women employees get pregnant or return from maternity leave, many of them experience a different set of problems.

“It is quite common for companies to deny promotions to women who have been on maternity leave,” said A Rabindranath, a freelance human resources consultant based in Delhi. Since promotions are largely performance-based and not tenure-based, a woman’s maternity leave often gets recorded as a time of average or no performance.

Rabindranath believes that companies openly breaking maternity laws could possibly be doing so out of economic desperation. “It could be that a company is really not able to afford substitutes during an employee’s leave,” he said. “But it also happens when companies are completely insensitive to the needs of the employee.”

Such insensitivity often comes in the form of indirect pressure and changes in the attitude of the company both before and after the maternity leave.

“Many companies assume that working mothers are not a long-term asset – that they are not likely to stick around even after returning from maternity leave,” said Persis Sidhwa, a lawyer at Majlis, a non-profit organisation in Mumbai working in the field of legal rights for women. Indirectly, bosses in some companies convey to new mothers that they can no longer contribute significantly to the organisation.

Most importantly, Sidhwa points out, both private and public sectors often do not provide women any incentives to continue working at an organisation after having a baby. “Most companies do not provide crèches or flexible hours, forcing women to choose between work and the home,” she said.

Two working mothers’ stories reveal a lot of the problems that Rabindranath and Sidhwa point out.

‘Why don’t you go on a break?’

In the case of Aarti Ningoo, getting fired from her job “without an explanation” came as a shock during her fifth month of pregnancy. Ningoo joined Eggfirst, an advertising agency, as a digital sales manager in June 2013 and was later moved to the client servicing department, where she was promoted in April 2014. “Everything went well till I told the company’s vice president that I had conceived, in July 2014,” she said.

Soon after the pregnancy, a junior was removed from Ningoo’s team, which increased her workload. “In October, the vice president told me, ‘Why don’t you go on a break and resume after your delivery? You look dull,’” said Ningoo.

In keeping with the company policy of applying for maternity leave well in advance, Ningoo put in an application at the end of October. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 allows working women in India up to three months of maternity leave. Ningoo, however, received no response to her email despite several reminders. In November, she confronted a company director. “I told him I sensed he was conspiring about my maternity leave, but he obviously denied it,” she said. At the end of the month, Ningoo found that Rs 10,000 had been cut from her salary.

On December 9, Ningoo claims she was verbally asked to part ways with the company, and was promised her entire December salary whether or not she chose to serve a one-month notice period. “The only reason given for this verbal termination was underperformance,” said Ningoo.

When Ningoo took some medical leave during her notice period, she claims she was asked to put in a resignation email even though she had already been verbally fired. She refused. Eventually, she got half her December salary and was given nothing in writing when she finally left the agency.

Eggfirst did not respond to Scroll.in’s queries about why Ningoo’s maternity leave application was ignored or why her salary was cut for two months. The company admitted, however, that she had been fired. “Aarti [Ningoo] has been…unable to reconcile with her performance deficiency and deliberate malignant acts,” said Devendra Shrimal, a spokesperson for Eggfirst.

As proof, Shrimal sent Scroll.in a copy of two personal wedding cards Ningoo had allegedly designed in office and a copy of a private message Ningoo sent her colleague (through official email) saying that she suspected that the director was conspiring about her maternity leave application. Shrimal also held Ningoo responsible for losing a client for the Eggfirst.

‘They called my husband for a chat’

In 2011, Kolkata resident Puja Seth (name changed on request) was compelled to leave her job as a subeditor with a national newspaper after she got pregnant. Seth’s health was poor in her first trimester, and her bosses first voluntarily reduced her work hours.

In the third month of pregnancy, however, Seth was called in for a meeting with her seniors. “They asked me how I could keep working like this, insinuating that I should quit the job,” she said. “I told them I would figure out how to manage work, because journalism doesn’t pay very much and my family really needed two incomes at that time.”

Similar meetings continued over the next few weeks, where she was pulled up for leaving earlier than her colleagues and was repeatedly asked to call in her husband for a chat. “When my husband finally met them, they had the audacity to ask him how a man could let his pregnant wife work,” said Seth.

Half-way through her pregnancy, the company asked Seth to resign citing pressure from the company’s head office in Delhi. “My health had deteriorated further because of all the stress, so I told them I would go on indefinite leave – but I refused to resign,” she said, choosing not to return to the company after her son was born. “I was paid for three months of maternity leave, but the mental trauma they put me through cannot be excused,” added Seth, who now works with a company that provides a crèche for employees’ children.