Women in academia: What’s holding them back?

Here’s an interesting analysis in the light of UGC and AISHE data.

WrittenBy:Swati Puri
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Have women shattered the glass ceiling in academia? Going by the numbers, it seems they have a foot firmly in the door, but fewer seats at the table.


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First, the good news. The share of women in the student body has risen substantially over the last seven decades and they are now almost on a par with men in terms of numeric representation, according to recent reports from the University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE). Also, more women than men are pursuing post-graduate degrees, diplomas and MPhils.

Now the bad. When it comes to teaching positions, men are still outnumbering women, especially at higher levels of the academic hierarchy. Also, both students and teachers continue to be in disciplinary straight-jackets, such as humanities, teaching and nursing for women, engineering and law for men, B.Eds for women and MBAs for men.

In higher education, women students and teachers enjoy parity in numeric representation at central universities (the likes of DU, JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia) but are underrepresented at the elite institutions of national importance (read IITs, NITs and AIIMS).

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News of persistent sexual harassment on campus (“eve-teasing”) in print, broadcast and digital media has shone a light on how gender identity plays out in institutions of higher learning.

Last year, campaigns directed at making college campuses more inclusive for women received scrutiny.

Women also took up the cudgels against arbitrary differences in rules for women hostellers and took to social media to allege sexual harassment by certain male faculty members and influential academicians in a bid to warn fellow students and researchers.

The developments brought into focus the capacity – or lack thereof – of higher education institutions to safeguard women’s interests and foster equal opportunity campuses for men and women.

Closer look at data, points to ponder

– Women enjoy enrollment parity in central universities but are outnumbered 2 to 1 in private universities. At the prestigious institutions of national importance, women account for less than one-third of the student body.

– Women are outnumbered in law programmes 2 to 1. Engineering and technology programmes have only 2 women for every 5 men. Less than a third of students in B.Tech programmes have been women for the past five years.

– Women are over-represented in the humanities, with 17 women for every 10 men in MA programmes. In education, there are 18 women for every 10 men and men account for only one-third of B.Ed students.

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– MBBS enrollments are evenly split among men and women, though in the nursing profession there is just 1 man for every 4 women.

– The gender gap in representation is particularly pronounced among People with Disabilities (PwD).

– A recent survey of adolescents in rural India suggested that a fourth of young women aspire to become teachers and close to a fifth wish to become doctors or nurses.

– Only one-fourth of 18-23 year olds are taking up higher education and the numbers for SCs and STs are even lower.

– The enrollment ratio for women is slightly lower than that for men and varies widely across states: in Bihar, only 13 per cent of age-eligible women are enrolled in post-secondary education, while the same figure is 48 per cent for Delhi and 69 per cent for Chandigarh.

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Notably, women’s choice of discipline/college is affected by many factors, for instance, recent research suggests that the fear of sexual assault on the way to campus makes women enroll in lower rung colleges that are considered “safer” to access.

What is the impact of women and men being split into gendered, disciplinary boundaries, one may wonder. It will likely have implications when it comes to jobs.

Occupational segregation by gender may limit women’s bargaining power in the workforce: think career advancement and wage prospects of women engineers vis-a-vis their male counterparts, or the leverage that the nursing community can collectively exercise to negotiate better terms of work.

Women underrepresented in teaching faculty

When it comes to women in teaching faculty and positions of authority, the story is one of under-representation, and the gender gap increases with levels of seniority.

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Women account for only 2 out of 5 teaching faculty positions – from 1 in 5 teachers in Bihar being women, to 3 out of 5 in Kerala. The gender gap in representation is greater among SCs, STs, OBCs, Muslims and PwDs.

At the very top, women hold only a fourth of professorial positions. AISHE data for 2016-17 shows that only 17 per cent of vice-chancellor, pro-vice-chancellor and director positions across universities in India are held by women: that’s 1 woman for every 5 men. And in no state is the share of women professors more than 40 per cent.

Interestingly, women are over-represented at the lowest rung of the hierarchy: that of tutors or demonstrators.

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It is worth exploring how the lack of gender parity in positions of authority impacts the voice, agency and influence enjoyed by women students and teachers on campus.

A word on the data 

Numbers published by the UGC are as of now ‘provisional’ and the report provides little information on how it is collected. UGC and AISHE numbers don’t match due to differences in definitions and estimation methodology. The AISHE simply compiles self-reported survey responses from universities and colleges and puts the onus for data accuracy squarely on participating institutions. The survey has had a track record of poor compliance, but encouragingly only 8 per cent of universities and 15 per cent of colleges failed to provide data for 2016-17. There is a noticeable drop in teacher numbers in 2016-17, for better or worse depending on who you choose to believe. This author also detected a few errors in typing and internal inconsistencies in data within the report.

(Read here the full blog post on which this article is based. Reach out to the authors at @hellocheck123)

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