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The Smokescreen of Diversity and Inclusion in Indian Higher Education

The Smokescreen of Diversity and Inclusion in Indian Higher Education

Photo: Jan Antonin Kolar/Unsplash

  • Per the 2018 annual report of the erstwhile University Grants Commission, India had 725 universities (at the time), but only 0.024% had ever had a female VC.
  • There have also been only four women directors across the 73 ‘institutes of national importance’, which include the IITs, the IIMs, the AIIMS and the NITs.
  • The All-India Survey of Higher Education reveals a chronic clustering of women faculty in the lower ranks, with a steady rise in their engagement in temporary positions.
  • The lofty institutional visions of “diversity and inclusion” that have now become ubiquitous in the mastheads of Indian university websites have not trickled down.

Inclusion and diversity have been visible priorities in most higher education institutions worldwide. While a heightened focus on diversifying the academy has encouraged several universities in the ‘Global North’ to articulate these goals more formally, deficits in career outcomes and questions of representation around race and gender, with women of colour making the smallest gains, continue to plague the academy.

A large body of sociological work from North America has shown a chronic underrepresentation of women in high-demand fields (e.g. STEM) as well as a clustering of female faculty in the lower ranks as a result of a diverse set of factors ranging from social to institutional. These include:

* Unwelcoming organisational climate,

* Slanted internal processes,

* Unfair promotion metrics (e.g. parental leave has been shown to enhance men’s research productivity while adversely affecting that of women),

* Gendered differences in professional mentorship, disciplinary differences (e.g. women faculty in physical sciences, biology, agriculture and engineering fields are less likely to stay employed and face career discontinuities than their peers in the social sciences), and

* Social norms governing expectations of (re)productive labor (caring duties and household management tasks fall largely on women).

Together, they lead to racial and gender gaps in tenure, promotion and leadership outcomes.

Where are the women?

Another, and less common, line of inquiry is the role of organisational governance. As such, organisational representations, regulations and procedures are an outcome of the prevailing social norms.

For example, in one 2012 study based on American higher education institutes, the authors argue that the gender composition of the leadership – vice-chancellors, provosts and trustees – influences the way academic institutions diversify their faculty along gender lines. Specifically, this study revealed that not only do female presidents and female trustees increase their female faculty share at a rapid rate, but the magnitude of these gender-based ‘gains’ are highest in smaller institutes where central administrators play a great role in faculty recruitment and diversification.

As such, there is now greater recognition of organisation structures and institutional strategies being key to attaining gender equity in the academy than the hollow cry of “leaning in”.

While these factors are well-acknowledged and routinely studied in industrialised nations, the scope of sociological investigation remains stunted in countries such as India. Thus, despite a sharp rise in the number of universities in recent years, India’s higher education scene along gender lines remains dismal.

Per the 2018 annual report of the erstwhile University Grants Commission, India had 725 universities (public and private combined) at the time, but only 13 (0.024%) of them had ever had a female vice-chancellor. These included six women-only universities where, according to the ordinance, only a woman could be nominated for the position of a vice-chancellor.

There have also been only four women directors across 73 institutes of national importance (INIs), which were established through a special Act by the Union education ministry (formerly the Ministry of Human Resource Development). These INIs include the prestigious constellations of the IITs, the IIMs, the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences and the National Institutes of Technology. Postcolonial India has yet to have a woman director appointed in its INIs.

This inattention to the gendered process of leadership is exacerbated by a persistent lack of statistical data on women faculty. For example, a 2015 British Council and University of Sussex report on the status of women in higher education leadership in South Asia noted that gender was often a neglected category in higher education policy documentation. When gender was included, it was limited to students and didn’t encompass academic staff.

The missing link

Clearly, the lofty institutional visions of “diversity and inclusion” that have now become palpably ubiquitous in the mastheads of Indian university websites have not trickled down in the form of action. This apparent paradox between liberal ideology and (gender-based) egalitarian outcomes has been often explained using sociological factors – of implicit cultural biases that restrict women’s upward professional mobility. But it is worth noting that most Indian universities, private or public, have no overseeing institutional machinery, such as a ‘faculty affairs office’ or an ‘office of the provost’, that ensures inclusivity and diversity in hiring, promotion and retention practices in the academy.

This synergistic governance, which allows provosts’ offices to oversee universities’ academic mission and its translation and engaging leadership in strategic planning, is largely missing from the organisational environment of Indian universities. Hence, diversity officers who are increasingly becoming visible signatories in the North American higher education climate are woefully absent in India. Only recently, in a hallmark decision, did IIT Delhi, one of the INIs, launch its first ‘office of diversity and inclusion’.

Data drawn from the All-India Survey of Higher Education website reveals this empirical reality, where “diversity, equity and inclusion” remain empty philosophical statements with no translational purchase. There is a chronic clustering of women faculty in the lower ranks, with a steady rise in temporary positions among women (as demonstrators/tutors) over the years.

Minor inter-state differences notwithstanding, with the notable exception of Kerala, which has been known for its record of high scores in the Human Development Index, the picture remains remarkably stable across Indian states with large public and private universities. Significantly, women academics continue to make losses in a system where institutional sexism in terms of promotion and leadership outcomes are endemic.

Shifting the narrative

Although we can’t make causal claims without adequate statistical data and analysis, it is clear that a fair system of organisational governance – with visible female leadership – can serve as gatekeeper that ensures inclusivity and diversity in the faculty. As such, it is now well established that institutional policy changes that are transparent in standardising and codifying the promotion processes can go a long way in unclogging the pipeline for women and facilitating their upward mobility.

This is especially important in the post-pandemic world, where known barriers to women’s career advancement have been all the more amplified. Given that teaching loads, service obligations have increased during the pandemic, there are higher chances of women academics in the lower ranks being caught in multiple binds of discrimination. Institutional actions should go beyond box-checking exercise in tenure and promotion decisions since the everyday realities of the pandemic have been experienced in vastly different ways by women and men.

Equity metrics that acknowledge the deepening of gender biases will allow Indian academia to witness real change in their institutional visions.

The author acknowledges data-mining help from Tanmay Devi and Kaushik Gopalan.

Tannistha Samanta is an associate professor with the Department of Sociology, FLAME University, Pune. Her research lies at the intersection of family sociology and aging studies.

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