Editor’s Note: In the light of the ‘institutional murder’ of Payal Tadvi, it is time we acknowledge how toxic the environment can be in Indian academic institutions. Age-old malpractices that we have constitutionally renounced, continue to take root in these spaces: casteism, misogyny, corruption, and more.
In this piece, writing analyst Ishita, delves into the pains and potential solutions for the problematic approaches to gender in the Indian college bubble.
For many of us, college is our first brush with reality. It gives us a peek into the larger, ‘real’ adult world out there. Through college, we are introduced to its workings, and this underpins the majority of our perspectives and expectations in a social context. Emma Watson, actress and Global Goodwill ambassador for UN Women, said, “universities are tiny utopias, a miniature model of how society could look”.
However, every college campus consists of its own sub-culture. For universities with campuses located on the outskirts of cities, cut off from civilisation, the metaphorical bubble assumes physical dimension.
In the context of India, much progress has been achieved in bridging the gender gap at the level of primary education. However, the same isn’t true at the college level, especially for technical and professional courses. Courses such as law, management, and STEM disciplines, suffer from stark gender disproportion. This is further percolates into their entry into management school, a trend evidenced by the drop in female applicants in the IIMs noticed in 2018.
At first glance, this may seem relevant to only a cross-section of people. However, the weight of the numbers lies in the fact that the gap only increases with progression in these careers.
IITs, which are considered the holy grail of education and achievement, both nationally and globally, suffer from the worst gender imbalance as only 9.3% of IIT students are women.
An IMJ Study entitled “Women’s Education in India: A Situational Analysis” identified the key issues in professional Courses as gender stereotyping and ideas of self-efficacy – which is the person’s own belief in their ability to succeed – as the reasons underlying imbalance of gender ratio in such courses.
The larger problem across academia
This trend continues in relation to the gender ratio of professors and lecturers, and is spread across academia as a whole, though more prominent in technical courses. Women remain highly under-represented in teaching posts and positions of power, and this gender gap widens with seniority. The usual stereotypes regarding women’s capability in STEM fields, is far from put to rest.
The impact of the gender gap
#1 It normalises inappropriate comments and behaviour
In IITs, where an overwhelming majority of the class is made up of men, the power structure tilts in their favour. Women students are often subjected to remarks rife with sexual innuendos and undertones, sometimes served in the guise of jokes and slut-shaming, by their male-dominated peer groups. They are faced with the option of tolerating such behaviour or take on the risk of isolating themselves from their peers and, in turn, the opportunities of learning and growth they provide.
It is common in such a testosterone-driven environment, for open discussions that centre around women’s dressing, certifying their character and breast sizes. According to a fourth year student of IIT Kharagpur, “13:1 ratio puts girls in a position where they have to concede to sexist remarks of guys, who, half the time, are their classmates and friends, while for guys the lack of female energy causes great feelings of deprivation. Such a lopsided situation isn’t good for either genders involved”
Its pertinent to note that the very nature of the course and curriculum of engineering is collaborative, research projects, assignments, and exam preparation necessitates group study. In such a situation, women inevitably accept the behaviour meted out to them as the cost of survival and condition themselves to take it in jest.
On a deeper level, the lines between appropriateness blur completely as female students become conditioned to accept subtle sexism and lewd remarks as the norm. In such a male dominated set-up, the cost of reporting casual sexual harassment is higher for women.
Men, on the other hand, become aware of the skewed ratio in their favour, and this cements feelings of entitlement, privilege, and superiority over their female counterparts. Furthermore, objectifying women and judging them based on their sexual activity becomes the norm.
#2 It skews the process of gender socialisation and introduces toxicity
Gender differences are learned, are social and are shaped through culture, a huge part of culture is gender-specific grouping.Lise Elliot, neuroscientist and author
Gender segregation is a common practice across most schools in India. It begins as early as in school, where teachers deliberately classify girls and boys through separate rows of seating. Such a practice promotes a disturbing trend in gender socialisation and becomes more problematic at the college level; especially so in the context of colleges laden with gender inequality.
It is safe to concede that all absence of interaction with the other gender is not forced upon. A large part of it is also the result of family background, rural versus urban settings, and other socio-cultural factors.
The systemic biases persist and thrive in colleges with poor female to male ratios. A final year student of VIT states, “It is common to be subject to comments such as guys being better at computers and that despite their degrees, girls will ultimately be settled at the age of 24, such comments are even made by the professors in the Institution.”
It is also a missed opportunity for fostering healthy, cordial male-female friendships since there is the tendency for such a bond being overly-sexualised. Moreover, not all people along the gender spectrum fit into the binary system of college community.
A subtle but powerful message is given out by college authorities by setting different curfew times for men and women. It seems to say that the price for safety of women is curbing their freedom rather than bringing a systemic change in the attitude of men.
Interestingly, in 2017, Harvard University announced that it would shut all gendered groups including sororities, final clubs, and fraternities. They reasoned that male fraternities have been identified as the breeding grounds for misogyny, an attitude deemed inconsistent with the premier institution’s values.
Members of such groups would be ineligible to hold academic and leadership positions on campus or get endorsements for post-grad scholarships.
Potential solutions whose proof lie in being implemented
#1 Gender sensitisation initiatives for all
Gender sensitisation addresses a range of problems such as rights in countering sexual harassment, issues of equality and freedom, broader questions relating to sexuality, norms of masculinity and femininity that foster understanding and respect towards everyone who is a part of the heterogeneous composition of college and university campuses.
Gender sensitisation is one of the key recommendations made in ‘Saksham -Measures for ensuring safety of Women and Programmes for Gender Sensitization on Campuses’. Conducting workshops on gender, issues pertaining to sexual harassment, and knowledge about laws and rights are crucial to this effort. Making the course module on gender sensitisation a part of the larger curriculum is yet another method suggested to bring about gender sensitivity in academic institutions.
Sensitisation of college faculty cannot be emphasised on enough. Gender sensitisation programmes ought to target faculty members as well, as their values and approaches are often co-opted by the students and others in their areas of influence within the larger academic community.
In a bid to take these efforts forward, the UGC also mandates the formation of Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment to be tasked with policy of zero tolerance of gender-based violence on campus.
#2 Mentorship programmes that promote female role models
Having female role models in traditionally male-dominated careers can be immensely beneficial. An example is Harvard Seneca which was formed with the explicit purpose of creating a strong network of female students and helping them access leadership roles on campus.
The ‘HeForShe University Parity Report 2016’ proposes two methods to combat gender inequality on campus: increasing representation of women in senior leadership positions as gender equality in administration would be vital in the formation gender-responsive policies, and secondly, breaking stereotypes and systemic resistance so as to encourage women to take up careers in science and technology.
#3 Applying broader assessment criteria
General statistics of quantitative scores in competitive exams indicate that women don’t perform as well as men.
US STEM Program, in a similar manner, overhauled the system of admission based purely on test scores and adopted a more holistic approach in evaluation.
Making the assessment criteria broader in courses in IIMs will also help churn out well-rounded managers, who are not only efficient with the business KPIs, but are also socially-aware, responsible leaders within their organisations.
In IIM-Kozhikode, a systematic change in the admission policy was introduced in 2013, according to which the criteria for admission went beyond their academic performance and CAT scores, so as to acknowledge people’s contribution to areas like sports, music, social sector, and others. As a result, in the outgoing batch of 2015, female students outnumbered the males. This also created 60 supernumerary seats in 2018.
In a time where diversity has become such a litmus test of university experience and values, India will do well to look into the impact of this gender disproportion in the social context.
Ishita Mehrotra is a writing analyst at Qrius.
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