Women struggle against institutional structures, entrenched attitudes

In January India’s higher education regulatory body, the University Grants Commission, or UGC, set up a panel of top academics to prepare a blueprint aimed at making campuses around the country safer for women and more gender sensitive.

The move was a direct fallout of the brutal rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in Delhi on 16 December, which sparked major protests in the capital and elsewhere and left the government needing to show it was acting on women’s issues.

But even as the UGC panel evaluates security arrangements on campuses, women academics say the university as an institution is not women-friendly, and much needs to be done to substantially increase women’s participation in learning and in leadership roles.

That means breaking down entrenched institutional structures and social attitudes.

“In higher education circles there is greater hypocrisy when the safety of women students and gender issues are concerned. These are neither discussed nor acknowledged. Academicians would like to believe that sexual harassment and glass ceilings do not exists in academics,” said Professor Rohini Godbole of the Centre for High Energy Physics at the Indian Institute of Science (IIS), Bangalore.

“When I go for meetings after teaching is over or participate in discussions, male colleagues often say, ‘Why don’t you go home? We will take care of this’. They genuinely think they are being helpful by allowing me to go home and take care of my family while they attend to the administrative work in college,” said Abha Dev Habib, an associate professor at Miranda House, a women’s college of Delhi University.


Many feel that the problem begins with limited access to higher education for girls.

“Women are constrained by their families in the choices they make. Secondly, when faced with limited resources, such as sending a child for extra training to crack entrance tests, a majority of Indian parents will opt to educate their boys over girls,” said Dr Rekha Pande, head of the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of Hyderabad in Southern India.

According to a paper published in 2011 by Professor CPS Chauhan of Aligarh Muslim University, women comprised only 40% of all students enrolled in higher education in 2005-06.

The paper, Participation of Women in Higher Education: The Indian perspective, noted that in 2005-06, 45% of the students enrolled in the humanities, 40% in commerce and 36% in sciences, were female.

Notably, women form just under 10% of students admitted to the prestigious undergraduate programmes at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs).

In 2012, the 14 IITs across the country waived the entrance test application fee for women, hoping this would encourage more to apply. The number of registered candidates who were female jumped to 33.2% in 2012 compared to 23.4% in 2011.

But the number of women who qualified (11.9%) and were finally admitted (9.7%) showed no improvement on 2011 (11.2% qualified and 9.9% admitted) or 2010 (11.2% qualified and 10.2% admitted).

The gender imbalance has forced the government to suggest that the IIT joint admission board consider preferring women over men if they are tied in the entrance test.

Women in science

The problem of women’s participation in science and science-based careers is particularly acute.

“There is a rigid division of subjects, and many academics think gender studies is a discipline that can be categorised under the humanities, and science students have nothing to do with it,” explained Pande of the University of Hyderabad.

A small-scale study by Godbole at IIS Bangalor tracked down 1,800 women who had completed a PhD in the sciences. Some 200 were not in touch with research of any kind.

“When the women were asked why they had left their careers after completing a PhD, a majority said it was because they could not find a suitable opportunity, and not because of family reasons,” Godbole said, adding very few women were directors of institutions or the recipients of big awards in research.

“Whether the reason is bias, or that a small number of women is engaged in research, needs to be studied. But the accepted notion that women leave careers because of family is not true. We need to create structures that will support women to continue in academics and research,” Godbole said.


Even for women who succeed at university, the route to the top in academia is difficult.

Karuna Chanana, a retired professor from New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and core group resource person of the UGC’s scheme for capacity building for women managers in higher education, believes women need to be motivated to change the social structure and their mindsets.

“Often women think they are good at academics and there is no need to get into administrative issues. Many don’t even think about leadership roles. The UGC programme aims to build awareness among women about their capacity to lead in higher education,” said Chanana.

A December 2009 UGC study found that of the country’s 431 recognised universities, only 13 had women vice-chancellors – just 3% of the total – and just under half of these were at women-only colleges.

While 60% of the country’s university lecturers are women, the proportion falls to 40% at the level of associate professor and slumps to 20% at the professor level.

“We have a patriarchal culture. Women candidates are rejected for the reason that they won’t find time due to family responsibilities,” said Armaity Desai, chair of the UGC’s national consultative committee on capacity building for women managers in higher education.

“I wrote to the government during the selection of vice-chancellors to newly established central universities. They replied that they could not find enough qualified women candidates,” Desai told University World News.

Motivation and training

Women academics need to be motivated and trained to build a niche for themselves in a male-dominated world, according to Pande. “Several women have expressed the need for training in leadership, governance and financial management to take up roles of registrars, deans and vice-chancellors.”

The UGC programme has over the years reached out to 4,000 women academics, creating awareness about the existing social order in universities and institutions, and motivating women to aspire to leadership positions.

It also imparts skills to participants including doctors, scientists and engineers, and includes financial management, team building, and research and governance challenges.

But attitudes remain an obstacle. Often, women themselves adhere to patriarchal views and beliefs without realising it.

“A senior professor in a central university repeatedly passed on the rotating responsibility of head of department to male colleagues because they expected her to and she did not believe she was capable. But when she was made to realise her potential and accept that what she was doing was not right, she took up the position,” Desai recounted.

“Just because you are a woman does not mean that you are gender sensitive. After all, women are brought up with the same patriarchal values as their male colleagues.”