STEMming the gender divide in academia

We discuss with Prof Ananya Mukherjee, the new vice-chancellor of Shiv Nadar University, why there are so few women in leadership roles in the academia, especially at technology institutes

STEMming the gender divide in academia
Prof Mukherjee said that women keep dropping out of the education system as they advance

Even though last week India elected her second woman President, in leadership roles both gender inclusion and diversity remain a challenge, and more so at the country’s technology institutes.For instance, of the 23 IITs, none has had a woman director. Of the 31 NITs, there have been only two—Mini Shaji Thomas and G Aghila, both at NIT Tiruchirappalli.

In a freewheeling chat with Prof Ananya Mukherjee, who recently took over as the vice-chancellor of Shiv Nadar University, Delhi NCR, we discuss why there are so few women in leadership roles at higher education institutes.

First, some facts
According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report released last year, in 2019-20 there were 1,056,095 women students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, in UG, PG and PhD. This compares well with the number of men students in STEM, 1,188,900 in 2019-20.However, even though women form 47% of STEM students (in terms of enrolment), where do they go missing when it comes to leadership positions?

Women dropping out
Prof Mukherjee said that women keep dropping out of the education system as they advance—i.e. even if in primary school there are, let’s say, 50% women, in secondary school that percentage will reduce, and in higher education it will reduce further. “This gets reflected in the academia as well,” she said. “There are a lot of women as assistant professors, but fewer as associate professors, and far fewer as full professors.” To fix this, societal barriers need to be reduced.

“We need to ask ourselves why there are more women nurses, office assistants and schoolteachers, and very few directors of top educational institutes,” Prof Mukherjee said.

“In STEM in particular, to have a fulfilling academic career and to rise to the absolute top is very demanding in terms of time (spent in laboratories, doing experiments, writing papers, and so on) and that may not be compatible with how we conceive women’s roles in family and society. They are more expected than men to provide care for their family,” she said.

Social stereotypes
Then there are social stereotypes as well, like it is incorrectly assumed that women aren’t as good as men in subjects such as mathematics. The society doesn’t project women as doctors, professors, or in other aspirational role model roles, and that needs to change.

But Prof Mukherjee added that as far as empowerment of women in general is concerned, there has been a lot of improvement. “I feel ordinary women in India now probably have a stronger sense of empowerment; I have observed a stark difference from when I was growing up to what I see in women now. There is also a strong sense of aspiration. But the societal patterns have not changed commensurately, to give a full expression to their aspiration,” she said.

The agenda of SNU
Prof Mukherjee said that the agenda of the Shiv Nadar University is to transform the very ways in we learn, discover, teach, analyse, act, live and come together to create an institution of higher learning. “Needless to say, women are, as they must be, central to such an agenda,” she said.

The best thing we can do towards reducing the gender divide, especially in STEM education and STEM careers both in the corporate world and the academia, is removing barriers to women empowerment. “It is important that our message to our women scientists is not that they must continue despite all adversity. Instead, our message should be that all of us commit to work together to reduce those adversities, to remove those barriers, and make their path less difficult than it is today,” she said.

Read also: How blended learning programs changing the classroom experience for students

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