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Women lead top 4 global universities; India lags behind


In the realm of engineering, a notable breakthrough has occurred with Preeti Aghalayam, a faculty member at IIT Madras, shattering the glass ceiling of the male-dominated sphere. Aghalayam’s achievement places her as a director within the esteemed ranks of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Notably, she has taken on the momentous responsibility of overseeing the inaugural foreign campus situated in Zanzibar, Tanzania.

A global impact

This milestone resonates on a global scale as the leadership landscape undergoes transformation. An unprecedented development emerges: four out of the top five universities in the world are now under the stewardship of women. This remarkable achievement is embodied by Irene Tracey, who has ascended to the position of Vice Chancellor at Oxford University; Claudine Gay, now President at Harvard University; Deborah Prentice, serving as the Vice Chancellor at Cambridge; and Sally Kornbluth, at the helm as President of MIT in the United States.

Recent data compiled by the UK-based Times Higher Education (THE) organization showcases a positive trend: among the world’s top 200 universities, 48 are now headed by women in roles ranging from presidents to vice-chancellors. This marks a notable increase from the previous year, when 43 women held such prominent positions.

However, the scenario in India’s premier educational institutions paints a less encouraging picture, particularly in terms of women’s representation in pivotal roles. In the domain of engineering, Preeti Aghalayam remains an outlier, being the sole woman to penetrate the elite ‘male dominated club’ of IIT directors. Her leadership role in steering the inaugural overseas campus in Zanzibar is a testament to her accomplishment.

A slow shift

Aghalayam reflects on the slow but perceptible shift occurring within the industry, emphasizing the significance of women ascending to leadership positions in a traditionally male-dominated domain. While she acknowledges her personal achievement, she stresses that for progress to be substantive, the scope of opportunity must be expanded for all women, encompassing both increased numerical representation and agency. Aghalayam underscores the imperative for equitable access to opportunities and aspirational pathways, advocating for a transformation that is challenging but necessary.

Dr. Darshana Banker, an Assistant Professor at Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Management in Delhi, has delved into this issue. Her research, spanning a two-year period, examines the trajectory of women’s leadership within higher education institutions. Her findings illustrate the evolution: the number of institutions under women’s leadership has grown from 54 in 2015 to 63 in 2018 and 110 in 2021. Banker’s analysis spans a diverse array of institutions, categorized into five groups: central universities, state universities, state private universities, deemed universities, and Institutions of National Importance (INIs).

The numbers

The research underscores that women have assumed roles either as vice-chancellors in university systems or directors of autonomous institutions. Over the span of the examined years, the proportion of women in leadership positions increased from 6.67% in 2015 to 6.25% in 2018 and 9.56% in 2021.

Interestingly, the data portrays a contrasting trend between technical and management institutions versus central universities in India. Central universities display the highest proportion of women in leadership roles, followed by state universities. On the other hand, INIs—such as the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS, and IISERs—exhibit a fluctuating pattern. In 2015, women held 5.48% of leadership positions within INIs, a figure that rose slightly to 5.66% in 2018 but dipped to 4.55% in 2021.

A closer examination of the top 10 central universities in India, based on NIRF rankings for 2023, reveals a stark reality: only Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) boast women in significant leadership roles. Santishree Dhulipudi Pandit serves as the VC of JNU, while Prof. Najma Akhtar presides over Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Remarkably, since these women took the helm, these two universities, considered the nation’s best, have experienced a period of stability and respect.

Najma Akhtar, who became the first female vice-chancellor of a central university in 2019, advocates for a more robust development of women’s leadership. She emphasizes that true empowerment is not just about discussions surrounding women’s emancipation but the actual realization of women’s potential in leadership roles.

A lot to be done

The emergence of Preeti Aghalayam as an IIT director, albeit a significant stride, underscores the fact that such progress should have occurred earlier. Ramgopal Rao, a former director of IIT Delhi, notes that the dearth of female engineers in India has historically been a limiting factor. However, this is changing, with the percentage of women faculty increasing to around 17-18%. Rao predicts that as this trend continues, more women will rise to leadership positions within IITs and other prestigious institutions.

Najma Akhtar and others emphasize that the presence of women in leadership positions is not a mere struggle; it is a steadfast assertion of capability. Acknowledging the persistent biases women face, Akhtar calls for women to persevere and assert their qualifications, advocating for a change in the landscape of higher education.

The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2020-21 presents a glimpse into the gender distribution of academic positions. While there are 84,226 women in permanent academic positions across various universities, only 3,008 are in the Institutes of Eminence—a poignant reminder of the work yet to be done.

In short, Preeti Aghalayam’s remarkable achievement symbolizes a changing landscape within higher education, particularly in fields historically dominated by men. However, these advancements are a reminder of the persistence of gender imbalances and the urgent need for more equitable representation in leadership roles. While progress is visible, the journey towards true gender parity and equal opportunities for women remains ongoing.

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