Mumbai: IIT-B makes gender awareness course must for students

Updated on Aug 06, 2021 10:24 PM IST

Students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) will now have to take a compulsory course in gender awareness

IIT Bombay, Powai. (HT Photo)
IIT Bombay, Powai. (HT Photo)
ByPriyanka Sahoo, Mumbai

Students of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B) will now have to take a compulsory course in gender awareness. The course is aimed at sensitising students about gender discrimination and inequality.

For the first time in the institute’s history of 63 years, a compulsory, zero credit gender awareness course will be offered to students at all levels. The institute’s senate passed the course in a meeting held last week. While many institutes offer gender sensitisation workshops for students, this is likely the first time that an IIT has instituted a mandatory course for the same.

Last year, IIT-B renamed its women’s cell – meant for handling sexual harassment complaints – to the gender cell. It is this cell that has designed the course, said director Subhasis Chaudhuri.

In a joint statement to HT, Rowena Robinson, convenor of the Gender Cell and Sahana Murthy, co-convenor, said, “In accordance with the law (Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013) and IIT-B policy against sexual harassment, the institute, through its Gender Cell, aims to ensure gender awareness and sensitisation for all students and employees. The new course ‘Gender in the workplace’ rolling out for students soon, and subsequently for all staff and faculty, is in online mode in both English and Hindi and its objective is to sensitise individuals about broader issues of gender discrimination and inequality.”

IITs have traditionally had very few women students apply for their courses. To address this lack of visibility of women, IITs have now introduced supernumerary seats to increase the number of women students to 20%. While these steps have improved the number of women studying Science, data shows that not many are retained in the field thereafter. According to a 2020 report by the United Nations, 43% of all graduates in STEM fields in India are women—the highest in the world. However, the report also found that only 14% of 2.8 lakh scientists, engineers and technologists employed in research institutions in the country are women.

Robinson, professor in the department of humanities and social sciences, and Murthy, professor in the interdisciplinary program in education technology, said, “We believe it’s the first time that an online course of this nature is being initiated for all members of the institute. Students at all levels will be expected to complete this course. We are not aware of an instance like this. However, some IITs do conduct workshops and orientations on gender issues.”

They said that the course— a pass/ no pass self-study one— will talk about how sexual harassment is a blatant form of gender inequality. “While it focuses on how the institute exercises its responsibility in dealing with this issue, it also emphasizes that it needs to be addressed collectively and that each member of the institute has an important role to play. The course lays out the systemic issues of patriarchy and power and associated gender stereotypes that underlie gender discrimination and sexual harassment. It emphasises that it is important to understand this social and cultural context to bring about a change in attitudes and tackle gender inequalities and sexual harassment seriously,” said Robinson and Murthy.

Chaudhuri said, “Preponderance of a specific gender in classrooms, which is quite prevalent in technical universities, may lead to the unwanted asymmetrisation in behavioural traits of students in their formative years, apart from the undesirable stereotyping of the opposite sex. We hope that such mandatory training will make our students more appreciative and respectful to the other gender(s), thus making the IIT-B experience an enjoyable one to all students.”

Robinson and Murthy said that the course is likely to be made available online for other educational institutions to train their students and faculty. “Gender Cell understands that gender sensitivity and awareness in the modern, global corporate workplace is no longer merely an issue of compliance with the law but is a competence that is highly valued. Hence, it is important for us to train and enhance the knowledge and capacities of our students to fit seamlessly and contribute more effectively in gender-diverse teams, offices and workplaces anywhere in the world,” they said.

Currently women constitute less than 20% of the total undergraduate student population.

Prajval Shastri, astrophysicist retired from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, who advocates intersectional feminism in academic spaces, said, “Better late than never! The HSS department and the lead faculty for the course must be congratulated on this amazing achievement. This means that finally there is acknowledgement from the management of an institute of higher education that gender inequity is systemic, rooted in patriarchy of mindsets perforce creeping into academic and campus life - a phenomenon that would be obvious to a social scientist but not commonly accepted by our science leaders so far. Presumably the design of the course tests for significant mindset shifts as a result of the course. I hope the hands of the lead faculty are strengthened by making the course mandatory for all institute faculty and staff including senior management, which will elevate it to being a valued course. It is most commendable and appropriate that the course from this public institution will be made widely available, which is bound to have far-reaching impact.”

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