Academia, research and the glass ceiling in India

True gender parity is when institutions consider women as assets rather than it being just a diversity rectification issue

September 02, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 01:42 am IST

‘Women are still an under-represented population globally in hardcore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics’

‘Women are still an under-represented population globally in hardcore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Gender issues, particularly gender inequality and discrimination in academia relating to higher education, perhaps came under the spotlight for the first time in India in 1933 when Kamala Sohonie approached Sir C.V. Raman to pursue research in physics under his guidance. The Nobel Laureate and illustrious director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, turned the request down on the ground that ‘she was a woman’.

Sohonie ignored the refusal which was based on gender discrimination and went on a satyagraha in front of the director’s office. She was then admitted for one year on condition that her work for the year would not be recognised till the director was satisfied with the quality of her research and that her presence did not distract her male colleagues pursuing research. Similarly, in 1937, Professor D.M. Bose, then Palit Professor of physics at Calcutta University, was reluctant to include Bibha Chowdhuri in his research group on the ground that he did not have suitable research projects to assign to women. Chowdhuri was unfazed and had her way. She joined D.M. Bose’s research group. Her work on cosmic rays in determining the mass of mesons is legendary.

These are only two well-known examples of gender discrimination in academics and there are many more such examples. In 2018, Prof. Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University, a theoretical physicist who regularly works at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, claimed at a workshop organised by CERN that “physics was invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation” and that ‘male scientists were being discriminated against because of ideology rather than merit’ implying that women are less capable than men in physics research. CERN called the presentation “highly offensive” and suspended him pending an investigation. Ironically, a day later, Donna Strickland was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, for her work on lasers, and became the third woman to win a physics Nobel, after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

The general bias against women which arose out of suspected capability of their intelligence and their mettle in undertaking the arduous task of research was quite common in the 20th century. Things have changed and the glass ceiling has been broken. But how far have we progressed in the last 100 years in shedding this bias and ensuring that women are on a par with men in academic institutions?

Government’s incentives

Despite the remarkable improvement in the participation of women in higher education and participation in the workforce over the past decades, progress has still been quite uneven. The Government of India has been ramping up efforts to remove gender inequality by providing incentives for women’s higher education. Some of these initiatives such as the Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions (GATI), i.e., a pilot project under the Department of Science and Technology to promote gender equity in science and technology, and Knowledge Involvement in Research Advancement through Nurturing (KIRAN), i.e., a plan under the Department of Science and Technology again to encourage women scientists in science and technology and also preventing women scientists from giving up research due to family reasons, are noteworthy. Some institutions are setting up creches so that the scientist mothers can carry on with their research work uninterrupted. Universities too are trying their best to be equal opportunity employers.

However, despite all these endeavours, there is still a gender bias that persists and which has not been removed fully. Women are still an under-represented population globally in hardcore science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Women and STEM

In this respect, India’s position in academia is disappointing. According to available UNESCO data on some selected countries, India is at the lowest position, having only 14% female researchers working in STEM areas. But India is not very far behind many advanced countries in this aspect. For example, Japan has only 16% female researchers, the Netherlands 26%, the United States 27% and the United Kingdom 39%. Countries with a fairly good ratio in terms of an equal number of female and male researchers are South Africa and Egypt, with 45% female researchers each, and Cuba, at 49%. The highest number of female researchers are in Tunisia, Africa (55%) followed by Argentina (53%) and New Zealand (52%).

In India, about 43% of women constitute the graduate population in STEM, which is one of the highest in the world, but there is a downside to this; only 14% of women join academic institutions and universities. Although male and female participation in graduate studies is comparable, the participation of women in research has dropped significantly (27% female as compared to 73% male). Thus, the visibility of female faculty in universities and research institutes is significantly lower. But what is bothersome is that the percentage of women in faculty positions begins to shrink with each step up the ladder. The number decreases when it comes to a position involving decision-making. Even recognition of merit when it comes to women is sluggish when it comes to the total number of women fellows in the three science academies of India — 7% for the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS), which was founded in 1934; 5% for the Indian National Science Academy (INSA), which was established in 1935, and 8% for the National Academy of Sciences India (NASI), which was founded in 1930.

According to a report published recently, at most STEM institutes, women occupy 20% of all professorial positions. The more prestigious the institute, the lower the number of women employees. For example, in IIT Madras only 31 out of 314 professors (10.2%) and in IIT Bombay only 25 out of 143 professors (17.5%) are women. Analysis of a few leading private universities does not reflect any significant difference. The number of female participants in decision-making bodies such as the board of governors or council of institutes of higher education of repute is abysmally low.

According to a survey by the University Grants Commission (UGC), seven (13%) of the 54 central universities; 52 (~11%) of the 456 State universities; 10 (8%) of the 126 deemed universities; and 23 (~ 6%) of the 419 private universities have female vice-chancellors. Out of the six Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) established in the 20th century, only IIT Kharagpur and IIT Delhi have women members on their governing body. As Anita Bhogle in her recent book, Equal, Yet Different – Career Catalysts for the Professional Woman has reasoned, a lot of this is because women are wired differently, and their challenges are different.

In the corporate world

On the contrary, participation of women in leadership and decision-making positions in private enterprises (the corporate sector) is startling when compared to the reality in academics. The number of women in senior management positions in the corporate sector in India is 39%, which is higher than the global average. Number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies is 15% while female board members in the management of private enterprises has been growing from 15% (2016), 16.9% (2018) to 19.7% in 2022. If this trend continues, near parity will be reached by 2045, according to a forecast made by Deloitte.

It is worth reflecting on the reasons for this discrepancy in female participation in higher positions in these two sectors. The mechanism of selection and promoting personnel in the private sector is mostly based on competence or merit because it is more result (market) oriented with a definite matrix than what it is in the academic institutes. A professor at Cambridge once remarked that the marketplace does not worship false idols and, therefore, makes empirically correct judgements.

Also read | ‘Glass ceiling holding back women scientists’

Second, encouraging the participation of women in the workforce in the private sector with the adoption of various schemes for women began long ago when compared to the initiatives taken by the Government of India in recent years. Various schemes such as flexi-hour worktime, rejoining the workforce after an interim break, sections operated only by women, etc. were introduced in private enterprises as early as the 1990s with the benefits being reaped now.

It is hoped the programmes that have been initiated by the Government to empower women in the workforce will usher in gender parity by 2047, which would mark the centenary of India’s Independence. Most importantly, gender equality or parity will happen only when there is a change in mindset and institutions consider women as assets rather than simply a diversity rectification issue.

Suprakash Chandra Roy, a writer, was the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Science and Culture

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