The glass ceiling in educational institutions in India existed until 1946 when Hansa Mehta became India’s first woman vice-chancellor (V-C) with her appointment at the Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey (SNDT) Women’s University in Mumbai. In 1949, she also became the first woman to head a co-educational university as the vice-chancellor of Baroda University.
However, in the past seven decades, the representation of women in top leadership positions in higher educational institutes has not seen any considerable rise. The University Grants Commission (UGC) in 2015 conducted a survey across 431 recognised universities in India, which revealed that only 13 universities had women VCs, and six of these were in women-only varsities. Even today, of the 54 central universities, only around seven have female vice-chancellors.
‘We don’t trust women’
In exclusive interviews with indianexpress.com, four women V-Cs from central and state universities share insights about women’s representation in higher education.
One of the reasons that only a minuscule percentage of women are leading Indian universities is “because we have not been able to create a culture that promotes equality”, said Sunaina Singh, who was appointed the first woman V-C of Nalanda University in Bihar’s Rajgir in 2017. The central university was founded in 2010 to emulate the famous ancient university of Nalanda, which existed between the fifth and thirteenth centuries.
“We (society) haven’t trained women to be in leadership roles. There was a time when I came in as the V-C of a central university in 2012… there were hardly any women V-Cs. As a culture, we don’t trust women to lead institutions or organisations. Women are still struggling to be part of the workforce, but that is gradually changing,” Singh told indianexpress.com. Before joining Nalanda University, she headed the English and Foreign Languages University from 2012-2017.
Disadvantage of social construct
In 2019, Najma Akhtar became the first female vice-chancellor of a central university in Delhi when she was appointed as V-C of Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI). She is also the first woman to take this charge in the university’s 99-year history. While Akhtar hopes that her appointment inspires future generations to dream big, she blames the social structure for women lagging in the academic race.
“Most parents do not want their girls to face challenges. You may find more female teachers in schools. While the job in itself is challenging, it allows women to function according to social acceptability—job security, fixed timings, and fewer male counterparts. In most cases, even today, working women have to fulfil their professional commitments, look after the household and take care of the kids,” said Akhtar, who worked for 15 years at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NEIPA), leading courses for senior officials from 130 countries.
According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021 by the World Economic Forum, only 22.3 per cent of women in India participate in the labour market, translating to a gender gap of 72 per cent. The coronavirus pandemic also has had an alarming impact on women globally, with women being disproportionately affected by job loss and burnout as they juggle work with caregiving demands.
Limited representation in STEM, research
Anu Singh Lather, the vice-chancellor of the Delhi government-run Dr B R Ambedkar University, said women VCs were traditionally appointed to all-girls universities only. She added that it was “very difficult to break the glass ceiling” of leading a technological university.
“For the longest time, the social construct of womanhood played as a psychological barrier for women and then came the next generation that blended both personal and professional life, but time management continues to be a barrier for women due to commitments on multiple fronts,” said Lather, who is a former pro-vice-chancellor of the Delhi Technological University (DTU).
She added that earlier there were a negligible number of women in research, but lately, they have understood the importance of credentials, which are important and mandatory to move up the ladder.
Last month, Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit, a professor at Savitribai Phule Pune University, was appointed as the first woman vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), which was established in 1969. On being the first woman in five decades to lead the central university, she said women must be 20 times better and work harder than men to achieve their goals.
Structural challenges hinder women’s growth
“Most women are educated for marriage and not for a job, and they are often told that men’s career is more important than theirs,” said Pandit. According to Oxfam International, women lost more than 64 million jobs globally in 2020, accounting for 5 per cent of all jobs held by women.
“In Asia, Africa and Latin America, one sees women as a subordinate. The number of women is increasing at the entry-level but not at the senior levels. Is there structural violence against women who come into careers? Are we challenged more? We don’t move to the associate professor or professor level as fast as men,” the newly-appointed JNU VC said.
She added, “The survival disadvantage of women as compared to men is very bad. We still have issues of domestic violence and marital rape that are not being properly addressed. More than literacy and education, everybody needs to be sensitised. I have met professors who think it is their birthright to make misogynistic comments at women. These things will have to get eliminated if we have to progress toward women’s empowerment.”
Singh, who is also the first Indian woman president of Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, a bi-national research institution, cites a lack of role models for girls to aim high in their careers. She calls for changes in the recruitment strategy as most recruiters encourage women to apply but “the applications are not taken seriously”.
Lack of female role models
“There is a lack of role models when it comes to higher education, and women who are there in the system are not projected as role models. Their achievements are underplayed. As women, we have to show extra perseverance and grit along with flexibility,” said Singh as she recalled how people were surprised when she managed to stay at Nalanda “despite very difficult situations”.
Lather, the V-C of Dr B R Ambedkar University, said the low number of female PhD scholars adds to the problem on a large scale. A PhD is required for admission to a professorship, which happens to be around the age when families and society expect women to settle down. Hence, despite more women in MPhil courses, men lead at the doctorate level. “This gender disparity is also reflected in the recruitment processes,” she added.
Women as natural leaders
On International Women’s Day, all of these four V-Cs, who have broken the glass ceiling in their own ways, advise young girls and working women to embrace their innate qualities and be matchless.
“Women today are born at a comparatively better age. From astronauts, scientists, and professors to politicians, mountain climbers, and actors, Indian women are capable of donning any hat,” said Akhtar.
Singh, who currently heads one of the oldest universities in India, calls upon women to build their progress routes and utopias. “Women need to be resilient and ensure that they build on the core values of the institution that they become a part of. Harnessing one’s leadership is the key,” she said.
On the other hand, Lather said that women are natural problem-solvers, more empathetic and compassionate than men, which makes them more than ideal to lead institutions. “Women bring a unique skill set and a different kind of leadership to the table, which can make educational institutions more disciplined and student-friendly,” said Lather.