Few women on top: Time to STEM the gender gap

Few women make it to senior positions at the major science institutes in the country and fewer still hold chair professorships — the highest academic honour granted to faculty by an institute — data accessed from various institutes has revealed
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Published on Jul 19, 2021 12:24 AM IST
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ByPriyanka Sahoo

Few women make it to senior positions at the major science institutes in the country and fewer still hold chair professorships — the highest academic honour granted to faculty by an institute — data accessed from various institutes has revealed.

At most science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) institutes, women faculty members constitute less than 20% of all professor positions. For instance, at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Madras, only 31 (10.2%) out of 304 professors are women. At IIT-Bombay (IIT-B), 25 out of 143 professors (17.5%) are women.

None of the IITs have had a woman director. Neither have the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, or Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

Last month, IIT-B became the first institute in the country to set up a chair professorship for women. However, only four of its existing chairs are held by women. At IIT-Madras, three out of 53 chairs are held by women. Only one of the nine chairs at IISc is held by a woman scientist.

Chair is a term for endowed professorships as recognition of a faculty member’s contribution to the university in terms of research and academics.

Experts said that the number of women in senior positions is skewed because the women opting for careers in STEM are low. This problem is aggravated by the unconscious bias and lack of proactive measures by institutes to improve the number of women in the workforce, they said.

“I believe that in the academic sector, differential treatment happens mainly through unconscious bias. I feel it is because our thinking and policies are not inclusive. There is a difference in policies being discriminatory — which is quite often conscious — and policies not being inclusive, as the latter is quite often unconscious,” Rohini Godbole, centre for high energy physics, IISc said.

Last year, Godbole was recognised by France for her work towards improving the visibility of women in STEM and awarded the Ordre National du Merite, the highest distinction granted by the country.

Entry point

Godbole said, “I think the major reason [for less number of women in senior positions] is just that their numbers are small at the starting level itself. The cause is of course not helped by the fact that the institutions and administrations are not proactive about getting gender balance in persons in position of authority. This lack of awareness and a kind of ‘invisible’ bias is the second major reason for under-representation of women in leadership positions at academic institutions.”

Various institutes are now taking affirmative measures to improve the number of women students. For instance, IITs have introduced the supernumerary seats to increase the number of women 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 280,000 scientists, engineers and technologists employed in research institutions in the country are women.

Barriers in the way

Science writer Nandita Jayaraj, who co-created ‘The Life of Science’ that journals biographies of women scientists, said, “Almost all challenges are due to systemic bias. Our website is full of evidence of this.”

“Systemic discrimination is a very strong part of the problem. For example, the fraction of women hired by a faculty hiring process should match the fraction of women among those with the requisite qualifications. But this is mostly not the case,” said Prajval Shastri, a retired astrophysicist from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru, who advocates intersectional feminism in academic spaces.

In 2017, the Niti Aayog surveyed over 900 women and 500 women students in science. In its report, the Niti Aayog made recommendations for best practices for promoting entry and retention of women in science. It recommends flexibility in service continuity norms.

“Career breaks need to be accommodated, as women scientists have dual commitments. Seniority based on total number of years of work experience or service rather than continuous service may help to retain talent and experience by allowing for re-entry of women scientists, which would otherwise be lost permanently,” read the report.

Leaky pipeline

The natural career progression for faculty members is to go from assistant professor to associate professor and then full professor. Numbers suggest that women faculty members fall out of this career path as they climb up the ladder.

For instance, at IIT-Delhi, 23.1% of all associate professors are women, but only 14.3% of all professors are women. Only nine out of all 80 chairs are held by women faculty.

Shastri said that there are several forms of inherent and systemic bias that can prevent the hiring of women or promotions to elevated positions.

“Women are often assumed to be the primary caregivers of the family and are therefore liable to compromise on their professional commitments. There are hidden norms followed while hiring women or handing them senior positions. One such norm is that women spouses of already hired faculty, however meritorious, will not be hired,” she said.

Way ahead

Last year, the department of science and technology (DST) announced Gender Advancement Through Transforming Institutions (GATI), which is a pilot project aimed at improving diversity in higher education institutes.

The institutes that sign the charter of GATI will conduct self-assessment and accreditation for adopting the principles of GATI within their policies, practices, action plans and institutional culture.

However, even well-intentioned interventions are often steeped in patriarchy, said Shastri.

“Interventions such as the mobility scheme offered by DST should not only be open to scientists of all genders and in a broader set of long-term relationships, their framing also needs to eschew patriarchy,” she said.

Jayaraj said institutions have consistently failed to enact recommendations made by academies and social scientists.

“While many solutions exist by policy, the implementation is abysmal. If you study closely, even recent schemes like GATI and Science, Technology and innovation Policy 2020 don’t convincingly promise any actual change,” she said.

In 2019, the Gender in Physics Working Group of the Indian Physics Association formulated a charter for gender equity in physics that makes recommendations for institutes and departments to address the gender disparity.

“The Hyderabad Charter for Gender Equity in Physics, which has the endorsement of over 325 physicists from India, is one possible first step. All institutional leaders and decision makers regardless of gender need to make equity and justice their cause, and build their awareness of discriminatory social processes within higher education. They need to undergo bias training, monitor and survey their own microcosms to learn about what might be going wrong, and involve external diversity experts as observers of their institutional processes,” said Shastri.

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