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The path towards a better gender ratio in higher education is clear

by Malabika Sarkar

Enable women to balance academic and research careers with other responsibilities, offer mentorship, and count on passion.

At the core of education is the premise of equal opportunity and accessibility. There is a rather interesting reshaping of the gender mix that has begun in academia. The gender ratio at universities and institutions of higher learning has been steadily improving, and this might just be further accelerated with the restructuring of the academic pathway under India’s new National Education Policy (NEP). With the statement in the NEP document that “the policy additionally recognizes the special and critical role that women play in society", both education for women and by women would be encouraged.

While women are yet to achieve parity of numbers in the senior-most positions, there are increasing numbers of women at the entry level. According to the last All India Survey of Higher Education, women held 27.3% of professor and equivalent faculty positions, 36.8% of reader and associate professor faculty positions, and 42.6% of lecturer/assistant professor faculty positions. It is only a matter of time that gender parity will prevail with these women getting elevated to senior positions.

Another heartening trend is that currently both at the Master’s level and in doctoral programmes, women predominate. Today, more women than men are enrolled for post-graduate degrees, diplomas and MPhils and are likely to take up doctoral courses and look for careers in academia without having to opt out early in the interest of jobs and family.

There are some common barriers that have bedevilled women’s progress in academia and research. These include shouldering a larger share of parental duties and taking on more non-research obligations. In addition, there are some systemic and institutional problems of perception in many institutions which are now withering away as public awareness changes and the demand for academic achievement and talent to fill up key positions rises.

This is not to say that institutions and universities do not have to actively work on practices and policies to build gender parity. Institutions need to invest in mapping the careers of women faculty, changing policies and setting organizational goals to achieve diversity and retain women talent.

A very large number of women researchers and academicians have tended to move away from academic careers to devote their energies to home and family. This is a loss of the country’s educational resources. Such women need role models whom they could aspire to emulate. Institutions need to profile their senior women leaders who have been able to balance the demands of home and career, so they are an inspiration to those who follow—much as the corporate world has started celebrating its women leaders.

The goal of enabling diversity in faculty and research with adequate representation of women cannot be achieved without mentorship from existing faculty, academic leaders and heads of institutions. Without mentorship, the halls of academia can be fairly lonely, given that it is rare to work in large teams and even rarer to build a network of peers and elders who can enable research and intellectual development on one’s own.

Most importantly, the government’s efforts at improving the gender mix in higher education has been showing results, and that too in a relatively short period of time. Allowing women scholars relaxation of one year for MPhil and two years for doctoral courses, as well as maternity leave and child care leave of up to 240 days during MPhil/PhD, has encouraged more women to pursue academic careers. As a consequence, women’s enrolment at the doctoral level has gone up to a healthy 43.82%, as per last information. As the pipeline expands with more women getting on to doctoral work, the faculty recruitment of women will also increase. In the span of a little over five years, the number of women teachers at the university level has gone up from 32% to 36.65% by 2018-19 and has since been steadily increasing.

There is a likely gender imbalance in some streams on account of discipline preferences, particularly in engineering and technology, which narrows the pipeline of candidates for faculty positions. Efforts are being made both by the government and institutions of higher education to address that gap. Within non-technical streams as well, there are some disciplines that tend to have a gender imbalance driven by student enrolment at the graduation and post-graduation stage. Addressing those would require a combination of advocacy for the streams by role models in the discipline as well as greater encouragement even at the school level, when most students start making long-term career choices.

In effect, there is an emerging and sustainable parity in the gender mix of Indian academia. The pathway towards this goal has been slowly easing. More than the proverbial glass ceiling, the real challenge has been enabling women to pursue academic and research careers while also coping with their non-academic responsibilities. At its core, of course, is the need for determination and passion towards academic careers and the desire to contribute to society and education. Those who have achieved eminence in academia—women and men—were driven by their quest for research, education and their desire to continuously enhance their knowledge base. At the end, it is this passion and determination that will shape and strengthen the presence of women in Indian higher education.


Malabika Sarkar is vice-chancellor of Ashoka University.

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