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How India can never become a superpower until women lead the way

Let's find out what the condition is of women in leadership in the higher education sector of India and how India can never become a superpower until women lead the way.

Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IIT Delhi) Director Professor V Ramgopal Rao shared an old photo on his Twitter profile of all the directors of IITs and IISER in India just a day before International Women’s Day 2021. What could the picture possibly have to do with the day celebrated globally every year? The picture shows an ensemble of the top academic minds that represent the country’s might at Rashtrapati Bhavan and it has sparked a debate on gender inequality and the absence of women in leadership roles at the country’s institutes that cater to the Crème de la crème. In a cryptic message, Professor Rao wrote along with the photo, “What is wrong with this photograph? Hint: Without it changing, India can never be a superpower. #LeadershipMatters.”

If you haven’t seen the photo you wouldn’t quite likely be surprised to know that all these directors/heads of institutes are men — there’s not a single woman at the helm of such academic institutions in India that churn out the best minds. It’s high time that this conversation begins and is heard, don’t you agree? Let’s find out what the condition is of women in leadership in the higher education sector of India and how India can never become a superpower until women lead the way, even in the decision-making of top academic institutions.

What is the scenario in the higher education sector?

The higher education sector is one such sector where male dominance is a continuing phenomenon despite several attempts in the past years to alter that scenario. A ResearchGate Study in 2017 found that the number of women representing Indian institutions and universities at the vice-chancellor, dean and director positions is significantly low. It also helped in understanding possible reasons for such low women representation in leadership with the help of literature. The data in the study was collected from the platforms such as the ministry of HRD and the University Grants Commission (UGC) along with 810 universities/institutions across the country. “The percentage of enrolment numbers are comparable even in the highest level of studies such as doctorate programmes. The percentage of enrolment for PhD in science subjects is 22.97 for females versus 21.60 for males, as per the AISHE (All India Survey on Higher Education) report published in 2013. This means that slowly and steadily, female participation has improved even in the previously male-dominated fields, such as science. India has come a long way from the days when women were limited to domestic responsibilities. The role of education is foremost in bringing about this change. As per the Ministry of HRD3, All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE 2011-12), girls constitute 44.4 per cent of total enrollment in education. The Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in higher education in India is 18.9 for females versus 21.6 for males,” the study stated.

It also found that women contribute more than 50 per cent of the human capital that is well educated. “As far as ability is concerned, they are also attaining academic records necessary for senior managerial/leadership roles increasingly. Companies having more women at the top positions outperform financially and 83 per cent of their direct consumer expenditure is attributed to women at the helm,” the ResearchGate study found. According to a Mckinsey study “Women Matter”, companies with a majority of women at the helm do better than companies with fewer women executives in terms of performance. This might be due to behavioural differences exhibited by the two genders in the decision-making process. According to another study by Gallup, gender diverse units in companies have higher comparable revenues than their less diverse counterparts. These definitely go on to show how India can never become a superpower until women lead the way. The gender disparity in leadership roles can cost institutions and further companies and workplaces.

How India can never be a superpower until women lead the way
Source: Data by Mckinsey Global Institute

Has it changed over the years?

Despite efforts, there are hardly a few institutes of national importance that have a woman at the top or a female director. Vinita Sahay was the second women in the country to be appointed by the Government of India to head IIM Bodh Gaya in 2018. Professor Neelu Rohmetra is the Director of the Indian Institute of Management Sirmaur (IIMS), Himachal Pradesh and she is the first-ever woman to head any IIM. She was appointed in 2017. Before that in 2011, Dr (Mrs) SK Pandey was appointed director of NIT-Puducherry. In December 2015, according to the Gender Diversity and Female Leadership in Indian Higher Education report by higher education-focused management consulting firm EduShine Advisors had found that a mere 63 out of the total of 1,008 institutes including central, state, private, deemed universities and institutes of national importance have women at the helm. Not a single IIT, Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) or Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) has a woman director, yet. This imbalance is uncanny despite the significant participation of women at lower levels and not in leadership roles. The report also found that “Female enrolment in higher education is 47.6%, with 42.47% women at the assistant professor level. This begins to taper off higher up the chain, with women’s representation at associate professor levels at 36.59% and at professor levels at 26.87%. Among academic leadership roles, such as directors and vice-chancellors, it drops to 6.25%. Countries doing better at leadership roles include Australia (32%), UK (29%) and South Africa (19.2%).”

How to have women lead the way?

“There is still an inherent bias against women in society. Moreover, the talent pool one can draw from is small,” said Kiran Mazumder Shaw, chairman and managing director of Biocon, and the only woman to be the chairperson of a board of governors at an IIM (Bangalore). “Compounding this is the problem that many women are still accepting being in a secondary role. They need to be more pushy,” she had said. A more recent study stated that while India still ranks fifth lowest in having women in leadership roles, the percentage of leadership roles held by women in India has increased. As per Grant Thornton’s Women in business: Beyond Policy to Progress Report, steady growth in women in leadership positions from 17 per cent in 2017 to 20 per cent in 2018 was noted. This stood at just 14 per cent in 2014. The data showed that gender equality policies are abundant and widespread, with 64 per cent of Indian businesses adopting equal pay for men and women performing the same roles, and 55 per cent implementing non-discrimination policies for recruitment. However, most Indian businesses say they are motivated to introduce gender equality policies primarily to live up to organisational values (56 per cent), found the report. “The respondents highlighted that barriers to introducing policies include lack of evidence of having a positive impact on their company’s performance (35 per cent) and a business culture that does not always support the diversity agenda (39 per cent),” the study also stated.

It is thus quite clear that we have a long way to go until women can be seen in leadership roles across educational institutions and workplaces. However, this change is inevitable and extremely necessary if India wants to become the world leader it wishes to be in the near future.

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