A litmus test for gender justice in higher education - Hindustan Times
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A litmus test for gender justice in higher education

Jan 26, 2024 10:23 PM IST

A decade after UGC’s SAKSHAM Report called out misogynistic practices, women continue to be denied substantive equality and voice in higher education

Even as India flags women-led development as a policy imperative, the prevalence of gender-based violence on our campuses presents a challenge for administrators and policymakers. Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) are, after all, meant to signal to society the desirable directions for transformation and progress.

Despite being close to a majority at the entry level, women academics face several challenges. (Shutterstock/ Representational image) PREMIUM
Despite being close to a majority at the entry level, women academics face several challenges. (Shutterstock/ Representational image)

It is over a decade since the pathbreaking SAKSHAM Report of the University Grants Commission (UGC) 2013 called out misogynistic practices and cultures of silence and impunity on campuses and made sweeping recommendations to redress these. Recent shocking instances of sexual harassment on campuses such as IIT-BHU, have once again highlighted systemic frailties and failures.

The enrolment rate of female students in Indian HEIs has increased dramatically over the past decade (49.3% in 2020 from 44% in 2011) and more female faculty are being hired (42.5% in 2020 from 37.85% in 2011). There is, however, a staggering contradiction. No other public institution in India comes anywhere close to the percentage of women in HEIs. Yet the absence of robust gender just practices and entrenched discriminatory mindsets continue to deny women substantive equality and voice in higher education.

Despite being close to a majority at the entry level, women academics face several challenges. Female faculty have to combat glass ceilings. The representation of women in the higher echelons of the professoriate and senior management remains low. The ratio of female to male professors in 2019 was 37 for every 100. In 2015, there were only 3% female vice-chancellors (VCs) in the country. By 2023, they inched up to nearly 20%. (Even today, of the 54 central universities, only around seven have female VCs). The absence of women in leadership positions does reveal layers of structural discrimination.

The heavily publication-dependent yardsticks for career advancement adversely impact women who avail leave for maternity and childcare, and the lack of creche and other facilities at workplaces put undue strain on women as they balance professional and care responsibilities. Inadequate institutional support to help women navigate career advancement, including networking and attendance at outstation conferences, continues to inhibit professional mobility. Consequently, a policy focused solely on gender parity in enrolment and hiring hides more covert forms of discrimination.

The SAKSHAM report highlighted the prevalence of several retrogressive practices such as discriminatory evaluation processes as a means to “domesticate” and deter students, especially women and sexual minorities from raising their voices against gender-based discrimination; differential timings for access to libraries, labs, and student hostels; imposition of dress codes, infantilising women students and restricting their mobility by designating areas as “unsafe” for them; and intrusion into the privacy of women through “surveillance” in the garb of “protection”.

The spate of student protests after the Delhi gangrape of 2012 made visible the discriminatory “policing” that women students were routinely subjected to. The SAKSHAM report strongly advocated that “HEIs help women transition from the protected atmosphere of the home into a real-life situation where she would have to exercise independence”.

Globally, only 30% of all female students select STEM-related fields in higher education. Stories abound on brilliant women scientists over the world denied their due or simply invisibilised — whether of Rosalind Franklin whose singular contributions to the discovery of the DNA were overlooked for the Nobel, or, much earlier, Anne Buckley in the early 19th century having to masquerade as the male military surgeon James Miranda Barry, or, closer home, the struggles of Kamala Sohonie, the first Indian woman biochemist to receive a PhD in a scientific discipline, who overcame the objections of Nobel laureate CV Raman, to gain admission to a research programme at the prestigious IISc Bangalore.

In India, despite the impressive presence of women in some STEM fields such as medicine and space research, there remain huge gender gaps at the top level of academic positions, and in academic publishing, citations, research funding and awards.

Women in scientific fields are clustered into lower paying sub-disciplines. Within the engineering and technology fields, the most coveted areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data continue to be male-dominated. There also exists a high incidence of quid pro quo sexual harassment in science departments on campuses, where generous research grants are available, and the lab often turns out to be a site of exclusion or overt harassment.

How far have constitutional mandates on equality, progressive legislation, such as the PoSh Act of 2013, the Vishaka guidelines on complaints committees, and mandates of regulatory bodies such as the UGC, assessment agencies such as the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Institutional Ranking Framework or exhortations of the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) impacted ground realities? It has been a mixed bag.

Since the SAKSHAM report, there have been significant policy milestones.

In 2015, UGC notified the Sexual Harassment of Women Employees and Students in HEIs Regulations; in 2016, it amended definitions of ragging to include abuse on grounds of gender and sexual orientation; in 2017, the Sensitisation Prevention and Redressal of Sexual Harassment (SPARSH) policy referred to HEIs also as workplaces; in 2018, NAAC revised its assessments and accreditation guidelines to include gender knowledge into quality assurance; in 2019, the department of science and technology (DST) announced a plan to conduct gender audits at HEIs along the lines of Athena Swan, UK; in 2020, the DST also launched Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions (GATI) as a pilot project to promote gender equity in STEM fields; in 2020, UGC’s SAKSHAM portal to build awareness on initiatives of support and redress mechanisms for women went live.

Regrettably, in practice, the procedures invoked by the mandated complaints committees tended to foreground retributive rather than restorative approaches. HEIs are not typical “workplaces” in the conventional sense. They are transformative, extremely heterogeneous spaces where fault lines along caste, class, gender, religion and region play out. A purely legalistic approach is wholly inadequate. Embedding gender justice in HEIs needs to go beyond the ticking of boxes or merely reporting the number of sexual harassment issues “redressed”. Shifting gears to explore more rewarding pathways is clearly needed.

Meenakshi Gopinath is director, Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace and former principal, Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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