Ranjona Banerji: Change in gender mindset needed

29 Sep,2015

By Ranjona Banerji

 

A friend and former colleague Soumyadipta Banerjee and his wife TV reporter Sonika Tewari have been fighting a long wrongful termination battle against Zee News. They have gone from the Labour Court to the Industrial Court to the Bombay High Court. All three have upheld their case. And yet, Tewari’s former employer Zee News, has gone in appeal every time. The Bombay High Court has made it very clear that a female employee cannot be dismissed from service while she is pregnant, which is what happened here.

 

The Maternity Benefit Act of 1961 is a welfare law says the high court and if it is not upheld, it would have terrible repercussions on all female employees and women in the workplace. The high court quoted the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961. The high court order also said, “Strict implementation of the Act, which ensures health and stress-free working environment for a working woman cannot be emphasized enough. Arbitrary termination of service during the maternity period, such as the present one, not only affects the concerned woman employee but creates a sense of despair and disillusionment amongst the working women in general.”

 

Here the court has reached the essence of the matter: making working women feel that they are safe from termination because of arbitrary reasoning by the employer. Although the media is quick to point fingers at every other industry or institution, it has been historically and criminally lax when it comes to transgressions within. Until the Tehelka case created a public furore, sexual assault cases were not taken seriously, although there are ample instances of sexual harassment and assault within newsrooms. In some commonly known cases, employees who sided with the complainant were threatened with termination.

 

In fact, some newsrooms maintain pockets of sexism even though ironically, the media is a far more just employer of women than many other organisations and industries. There are several women in senior and top positions in the Indian media. And yet, several prejudices remain. Pregnancy of course is an easy subject of dispute. Some managers use it as an excuse not to hire women at all, arguing that training and money on women is wasted when they run off to get pregnant. Interestingly, few of these managers, especially the men, have sworn to have child-free homes because of the inconvenience it causes. Underlying this prejudice is that old dictum: dealing with children is a woman’s job. The changes in this mindset are still slow, across the spectrum of human existence and workplaces.

 

It can only be hoped that this case acts as a wake-up call for the media and employers in general. Three courts in this case have made it clear that the Maternity Benefit Act cannot be flouted. It is also evident that sometimes, somewhere employers who try to use brute force or metaphorical bulldozers to get their way, will be questioned. It can only be hoped that the managers at Zee News will understand this case for what it is and open the eyes of those in the media to the importance of the law.

 

No one doubts that a media job is full of stress. But compassion and a pleasant work environment do not have to be inimical to a newsroom.

 

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On this note, congratulations to Mid-Day Publications for appointing Tinaz Nooshian as executive editor of Mid-Day. She takes over from Sachin Kalbag, who moves to The Hindu’s new venture in Mumbai. She was deputy editor of the paper since last July and is editor of Sunday Mid-Day as well. It’s always good to see an in-house promotion and one more woman on top!

 

All the best to her and Mid-Day, a newspaper that remains very close to my heart.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and columnist. She is Consulting Editor, MxMIndia.com. The views expressed here are her own.

 

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