There was a time when passionate vindication had to be written about women’s rights. While there has been significant progress since then, there are still several areas of concern. One of these is the lack of women in leadership roles in higher education in India.
Out of 54 central universities in India, only seven have women vice-chancellors. Not one of the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology has a woman director. And yet, it is not because there is a scarcity of women in higher education. According to the 2021 All India Survey of Higher Education, women hold 27.3% of professor and equivalent faculty positions, 36.8% of reader and associate professor faculty positions and 42.6% of lecturer and assistant professor faculty positions.
The increasing number of women at the entry-level is driving the change for better gender balance in senior positions in academia. While this will be a significant gain in teaching and research, it will not address the issue of scarcity of women in academic leadership. India’s new National Education Policy (NEP) “recognises the special and critical role that women play in society”, but giving women more opportunities in leadership roles in higher education requires a new mindset.
The lack of women in leadership roles is a global problem. For example, in the 130 elite research universities in the United States (US), only 22% of presidents are women. It was once said that women in higher education prefer teaching and research, not administrative and leadership responsibilities. But statistics again tell us a different story: 40% of deans and provosts in the US are women. But at the topmost level (president), it’s just 22%.
In India, women don’t reach leadership positions not because family responsibilities tend to hold them back, but due to a lack of opportunities. To reach a leadership position, mentorship through workshops and case studies is also required. Such mentorship modules must highlight that higher education leadership is not just a matter of administrative problem solving but also an opportunity to creatively shape future pathways. Once this creative potential is recognised, more talented women will be eager to take up the challenge. Moreover, for any leader to successfully lead an academic institution, it is essential to realise that all stakeholders — students, faculty, administrative staff, or its founding members — have a crucial role in the smooth running and betterment of the institution. Therefore, it is vital to strike the right balance so that all parties are represented for the smooth functioning of an academic institution.
Overall, while academia has seen a recognisable shift in its attitude towards women in leadership positions, two significant challenges need to be addressed. First, a policy and mechanism must be devised that consciously considers women for higher education leadership positions while judging their candidature on the grounds of qualifications, ability, and leadership potential alongside men being considered for such positions.
Second, it is essential to create an environment of understanding and respect for women leaders within the organisation. This would enable women in academic leadership positions to contribute to the institution. At the heart of it, the onus of bringing women into leadership positions falls on the institutions, governments and the larger society and their willingness to recognise the fact that in combination with passion, intellect and determination, women bring an inherent ability to balance multiple tasks which makes them fit to be leaders that the Indian academia needs.
Malabika Sarkar is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal