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Straight Talk: Why are there no women at the IITs?

The IITs and other STEM field institutions are showing an excessive gender imbalance. Dr. Pushkar examines this structural inequality in Indian and international academia and urges corrections.
BY Pushkar |   26-08-2015


In the US, which does not count among the most progressive nations in the world on several counts, including gender issues and higher education, there has been a concerted push, over the past many years, to engage and educate girls and young women about the world of possibilities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. For example, the Women in Engineering Programme (WEP) at the Cockrell School of Engineering, University of Texas, Austin, has since 1992 taken initiatives in pre-college outreach and recruitment, retention of college-level engineering students, community building, leadership enhancement and career development, all with the larger goal of creating and growing programmes that support women in ways that they can succeed.

Such efforts have started to show results even though the progress made may seem to be slow. In 1988, women constituted 15 percent of undergraduate engineering students at Austin; in 2015, the numbers reached 25 percent (Interestingly, as noted later, the share of women students in STEM disciplines is substantially higher at the post-graduate level across Europe and in the US).

That science or engineering in the US and elsewhere in the world is a male preserve is not news. Neither is the fact that women in the sciences and engineering disciplines face tremendous amounts of discrimination, whether as students, job-seekers, employees, and even at home. Initiatives such as the WEP are therefore badly needed to address such structural disadvantages.

In theory, academia should provide a more liberal and open environment for women, whether as students or faculty. It does not, however. Those who follow international higher education know that this is true for Western countries as well. For example, in the US and in Europe, around 50 per cent of the PhDs in science and engineering disciplines are women, but they make up for only about 20 per cent of professors. As one might expect, the situation is improving somewhat in some countries, certainly in the West but also in parts of Asia, where deliberate efforts have been made to provide necessary support to women so that they are able to pursue careers in science and technology.

In countries like India, WEP-like initiatives are still badly needed. The best engineering colleges, for example, are overwhelmingly male dominated. At the IITs, the vast majority of students are men, even though this year the numbers of women went up marginally from 8 per cent to 9 per cent.The same is true for the NITs. In all, the ratio of male to female students at the IITs is said to be in the range of 1: 10-12.

While there is occasional mention of the poor male to female ratio among students at the IITs, usually at the time that new students are admitted, it is even rarer to find any mention of the gender imbalance among faculty. For that reason, data was collected* on assistant professors from three popular disciplines—computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering—across 16 IITs in 2014-2015, to identify (among other things) the number of women faculty. In focusing on assistant professors, typically those hired within the last six years, the idea was to focus on recently hired faculty with the expectation that there is more openness towards women faculty today than in the past.

Doing a head count of only assistant professors without collecting information on the remaining faculty has meant that one is limited in making comparisons with the overall male-female faculty ratio, or the male-female ratio among faculty in the past. Based on the compiled data, one cannot say, for example, whether the IITs have been hiring more women over the past six years than they did earlier. Nevertheless, the numbers provide a good-enough indicator of how male-dominated IIT professoriate is.

According to available data, there are 482 assistant professors across EEE, computer science and mechanical engineering at the 16 IITs. Of these, only 34 are women. That is, only about seven per cent of recent hires consist of women, about three-to-five per cent less than the numbers for women students.

The male-female ratio for faculty is 1: 14. Two of the older IITs—Kharagpur and Kanpur—stand out in that they have no women assistant professors at all in the three departments! With the exception of IIT-M, all the older IITs have a ratio worse than 1:14. Not that the new IITs fare any better. At IIT-Patna, there is only one female faculty member in a total of 24; at IIT-Mandi, only one of the 28 assistant professors is a woman. IIT-BHU has the best ratio at 1: 6.25.

The break-up of women assistant professors across the three disciplines is quite interesting. As many as 23 of the 34 assistant professors are in departments of electrical engineering, nine in computer science, and only two in mechanical engineering.

These numbers are what they are because the intake of women at the IITs and other similar institutions remains very low. A few years ago, Sanjay Dhande, then director of IIT-Kanpur, had observed that it was possible to raise the intake of women students to about 30 per cent. However, those numbers remain quite unattainable. Unless deliberate and sincere efforts are made to increase the number of female students at our technology institutions, especially the better ones, it is likely that the professoriate in technology and science will remain primarily male even over the long term.

*All data was collected by Abhishek Sanghavi, a former student at BITS Pilani-Goa.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa




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