Blocked by gender barriers

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LEADING ROLE: Affirmative action is needed to help more women take up higher responsibilities.
LEADING ROLE: Affirmative action is needed to help more women take up higher responsibilities.


Their presence in academic positions in higher education has seen an upward trend over the years. Yet, what holds women from reaching the top?

They have breached the gates, but the glass ceilings still remain. For women in the field of higher education and research in India, the last decade or two have been an era of great expansion, as rising numbers of women faculty entered the workforce. However, most of them are still stuck at junior positions, rarely taking on senior academic, administrative or management responsibilities due to a variety of reasons, ranging from their own dilemmas between the burdens of home and career to bias and lack of opportunity at their institutions.

Faced with rising numbers of women students, an acute shortage of faculty in general, and an increasing awareness among women faculty of their own potential and capabilities, institutions and educational authorities are grappling with new ways to tap into that potential and encourage women to take up senior positions.

The numbers tell the story. At the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, the percentage of women on the faculty has doubled over the last 10 years, according to director M.S. Ananth. However, it is a much smaller percentage who have made it to positions of responsibility. There are no women deans on campus. It is a similar story at the University of Madras, which has one woman dean and none as registrars. Women head only about 10 per cent of the 70 departments, although they make up 45 per cent of the postgraduate and research student body.

“Women’s invisibility in the system, statistically, has become a focus of study and research,” says Karuna Chanana, a veteran educator and former professor of sociology and gender at the Zakir Hussain Centre for Educational Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Need for national policy

“Recently, ASSOCHAM carried out a survey [on this issue] and on the basis of its findings, has recommended that the government formulate a national policy to promote women to the top management. I hope, if and when that happens, higher education will be included in the policy,” she says.

Prof. Chanana, who is now a member of the University Grants Commission’s National Consultative Committee on the issue, was in Chennai last week to conduct the first in a series of workshops planned for the 11th Plan period to sensitise and motivate women faculty in the state to aspire for higher positions. “We need to have a holistic approach, addressing both dimensions of women’s motivation and institutional responsibility,” she said.

Many women faculty agree. “We need to sensitise women to the fact that very often, we don’t reach the top because we don’t aspire to reach the top,” says Latha Nagendran, an assistant professor at Anna University, who was a resource person for the workshop. She discussed how women need to manage the work-home balance without losing sight of their professional goals. And the road to those goals starts early, with the decision to pursue research, achieve a Ph.D or post-doctoral qualifications. “Unless we get the required qualifications, there is no point in aspiring for more,” she says.

M. Prameela, one of only three women on the University of Madras syndicate, says that apart from educational qualifications, women need to develop the confidence to initiate developments and stand up for their ideas.

“Women on the top need to have guts and show initiative,” she says, adding that women often find it harder to cope with the character assassinations and internal politics that can accompany a top-level job. Practical training in areas like computer awareness and the technically-oriented parts of a management job would also be helpful for many women, especially the older faculty, she adds.

Women also need to show an interest in areas beyond their specific job descriptions to be marked out for leadership, says Prof. Ananth. “Others must perceive you as willing to work for the common cause... But since they are fewer anyway, many women just don’t volunteer for battles,” he says.

Institutions must also play a role in encouraging women to take up higher positions, providing support without offering concessions. Dr. Prameela points out that even where there is no discrimination, it can be hard to find active support. “Nowadays, nobody says no to you. But how many will actually vote for a woman, in a syndicate election, or something like that? That is the pertinent question,” she says.

Another senior faculty member suggests that it should be mandatory to include at least one woman in the many crucial decision-making forums that are not selected through elections.

Some point out that even small actions such as constructing a women’s toilet in the administration block of an institution can go a long way towards assuring women that they will have management support for their aspirations.

Studies have proved that it is a smooth cycle: more women in senior faculty positions leads to more women choosing to go in for higher studies which again boosts the faculty strength. In that scenario, it is important for all stakeholders to work together to bridge the gender gap.

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