While the glass ceiling for women is difficult to shatter in the corporate sector, it’s even worse in the higher education in India. Less than 7 per cent of Vice-Chancellors in India are women. As diversity and inclusion become well-entrenched ideas in the global workspace, what can our higher education institutes (HEIs) do to catch-up on policies to ensure gender equity?

As per the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021, 20 per cent of the top 200 higher education institutions the world over are led by women – that is 41 of the top 200 institutions. In contrast, the statistics on women leadership in India paints a dismal picture. While many make it to mid-ranking posts such as Deans, Heads of Departments and Controller of Examination, fewer than 7 per cent of Vice Chancellors in India are women. And that too about half of these have been relegated to women-only universities, where it is mandated that the post of Vice-Chancellor is to be held by a woman only.

Ironically female students constitute a healthy 46.2 per cent of the total enrolment in higher education. The question is why female academics don’t reach the top echelons of our higher education system. Where are the missing woman leaders? And what should HEIs be doing about this?

Missing data

There is a distinct lack of research on woman leadership in Indian HEIs, and those that can be drawn upon are outdated. In fact, the lack of rigorous studies and bona fide data on women in higher education appear to be endemic to South Asia, with many institutions not even maintaining staff data on gender representation, as per a British Council and University of Sussex report (Morley & Crossouard, 2015). Sri Lanka seems to be the only exception to this rule.

A 2015 University Grants Commission (UGC) report listed only 13 of the country’s 725 recognised universities as ever having had a woman Vice-Chancellor. A 2017 study by Banker and Banker on Women in Leadership: A Scenario in Indian Higher Education Sector found only 6.67 per cent women heading institutions as VC, dean, or director (a total of 54 women), with the gender ratio best at central universities, and worst at IITs where no female representation was found.

Media stories

The media to some extent make up for this missing data, by (rarely) screaming out a headline whenever a woman does make it to the top. Examples include Professor Najma Akhtar who was recently appointed as the first woman Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, also making her the first woman to hold such a post of any central university in Delhi.

Another example is of Sonajharia Minz, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, who was elected as the Vice-Chancellor of Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Dumka, Jharkhand in May, 2020. This certainly made for headlines as she represents the intersectionality of being a tribal woman and has had more than her fair share of discrimination, including at one time being denied admission to an English-medium school due to her tribal ethnicity.

Earlier still in 2013 the headlines were about Poonam Saxena who was appointed as the Vice- Chancellor of the National Law University, Jodhpur. However, these headlines are few and far between.

Where are the missing woman leaders?

One of the reasons for so few woman Vice-Chancellors is the pipeline problem. “The delay in promotions to the higher posts is often due to the fact that the women faculty members lose seniority in the process of marriage and pregnancy/ies (having had to quit or shift jobs on marriage and pregnancy),” says V S Elizabeth, Vice-Chancellor, Tamil Nadu National Law University. Even if a professor rejoins work after a break of a few years, it is difficult, if not impossible, to catch up in terms of seniority.

Another reason is that in a widely patriarchal set-up women are not being adequately identified and prepared for leadership. This was a stark finding of the British Council and University of Sussex report, 2015, echoed by Elizabeth, who says there is a reluctance on the part of the selection committees to select a woman to the position of Vice-Chancellor.

Policy matters

Here are suggestions for the way forward. Ensuring that selection committees are of mixed gender representation is vital. Also, encouraging both networking and also informal and formal mentorship would go a long way to open doors for women.

At the organisational level there is often an absence of diversity and inclusion policies for the leadership track. Formulating a rejoining policy after maternity leave, putting women on a career fast-track as per the Norway example, or extending long leave for family care-giving exigencies to the husband too in cases where both the spouses work at the same university, are just some examples of gender-friendly policies that can be easily rolled out.

Given the ricocheting effect of the Black Lives Matter movement, where many institutions the world over are introspecting and relooking at policies, it is high time that Indian HEIs do the same.

The author is Professor & Chair HR/OB; and Associate Dean International Affairs, BML Munjal University