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Whether it be at elite educational institutions or in the top echelons of corporate leadership, women remain woefully underrepresented in the country

Siddhartha Tripathy

A couple of decades ago, it was rather common to hear male students from IITs and IIMs, the elite educational institutions of India, fret about the dire dearth of fellow students from the opposite sex. Their grouses about a feminine famine at their places of study were not unfounded.

Back in the 1990s, the ratio of male candidates to women at the Indian Institutes of Technology was 10:1 – that is, the number of male students in IITs across the country was around 10 times the number of female students.

Considering the fact that India had been independent for almost half a century by then and the other reality that women account for nearly half of the nation’s population, it was indeed a sorry state of affairs.

Things seem to have changed on that front over the years. But have they really changed enough? Has the much-needed transformation happened?

A Reddit post from an IIT Kanpur student was quite telling, being eerily reminiscent of the accounts of his seniors from yesteryear.

“I find myself in a situation where I have zero female interaction … I haven’t had the opportunity to make a single female friend since I’ve been here, and it’s starting to affect my mental health,” the student wrote.

Despairing that the absence of female company in his life was making him feel like he was “missing out on a significant aspect of social interaction”, the student expressed fear that the trend would continue and he would “never have the chance to form genuine connections with women until an arranged marriage comes along”.

“I want to break out of this pattern and develop meaningful friendships … Has anyone else experienced something similar?” he concluded with the question even as he sought advice and encouragement from his fellow Reddit users.

Whether anyone has reached out to him is anybody’s guess. And while he is quite evidently lonely, there is little doubt that he is not the only one of his kind to have such apprehensions. The average male-to-female ratio in the nation’s IITs has significantly improved over the past few years – especially after the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in 2018 made it mandatory that girls make up at least 20 percent of the total student population of IITs – but even today it stands at a heavily skewed, far-from-ideal 4:1.

This gender disparity at IITs extends beyond students. The average percentage of women faculty in these leading engineering colleges of the nation stands at around an incredibly low 10-11 percent.

It is a similar story in the case of the Indian Institutes of Management. The cream of the nation’s business schools have better gender diversity than the IITs – but only marginally so.

Back in the early 2010s, women candidates did not even make 20 percent of the flagship PGP programs offered at the IIMs. Before that period, the average intake of women at these IIM programmes was a shocking 8-10 percent.

Thanks to concerted efforts made at the institutional level, especially involving admission policies and scholarship programmes, the IIMs have seen a big increase in the number of female students over the years. On average, women now make up around a third of student enrolment at India’s top business schools. Yet, as early as last year, women students comprised only 23 percent of the PGP class at IIM Ahmedabad.

Just like the IITs, the IIMs also needed to put in place a compulsory representation of 20 percent women on their boards to address the acute gender imbalance on their campuses. This suggests that these institutions – and Indians at large – have a long way to go on the gender diversity front.

It is not about some male students experiencing psychological stress or a void in their social lives thanks to limited exposure to the opposite gender at India’s elite institutes. It is part of a bigger problem: the scarce presence of women at the top rung of management in corporate India.

As per a report released by The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) last year, women hold only 14 percent of the top managerial positions in the country’s Top 500 companies by market capitalisation. Experts across the board have been virtually unanimous in their view that these dismal figures are a direct consequence of the systemic hurdles that have perpetuated the underrepresentation of women students in India’s top B-schools.

So, what exactly are these barriers?

Educational experts and business school professors across the country point to the persistence of the so-called “CAT bias” in admission into the nation’s premier business schools. These institutions continue to consider Common Admission Test results as the ultimate measure of potential students’ eligibility or suitability for admission into their highly sought-after management programs. And the problem with CAT is it favours students with good quantitative aptitude – who usually come from engineering backgrounds, and naturally tend to be male students. It is something of a vicious circle.

This CAT-bias claim is proven by the fact that lower-ranked management institutions, which accept scores from other admission tests – such as Management Aptitude Test (MAT) and AIMS Test for Management Admissions (ATMA), among others – have better gender ratios than IIMs and other elite B-schools.

Others indicate another home truth. A vast majority of India lives in smaller cities (Tier II and Tier III), towns and villages, where people have not quite warmed up to the idea of girls pursuing management education and working in the corporate space. Even today, an incredibly high number of girl children miss – or are denied – the opportunity to go to senior secondary school in such demographies.

Thus, the underrepresentation of women in India’s top management and engineering institutes is also very much a function of cultural factors, and it may take another generation for gender disparity to really be a thing of the past in the domains of education and workplace.

Experts have suggested that this problem needs to be tackled from the school level itself. A considerable percentage of girl students decide against joining the IITs despite having successfully cracked the joint entrance examination and after outshining the boys in the 12th boards.

At the turn of the decade, it seemed as if a sea change was around the corner. The year 2020 saw a record number of women joining business schools across India. Female candidates made up a third of total admissions into the nation’s top six IIMs that year, up from 26 percent the previous year.

IIM Kolkata had already shown the way half a decade earlier by inducting a record 54.29 percent female candidates into its flagship management program with the 2013-15 batch. IIM Kozhikode came pretty close to that record with women making up 52 percent of its 492-strong 2020-22 batch. As for the 2018-2020 class, IIM Indore led top B-schools – those with batches over 300 students – with women making up 37.34 percent of its flagship program. Meanwhile IIM Trichy and IIM Rohtak led other elite institutions with batch size below 300, with female students constituting 50 percent and 48.96 percent of their respective flagship programs. On the other end of the spectrum were IIM Sirmaur and IIM Sambalpur. The former had just one female student in its 99-strong batch, and the latter had none to show for its 90-strong batch. However, XIMB – a top business school situated in Bhubaneswar – gave a much better account of Odisha with women accounting for 31.59 percent of its 364-strong 2020 class.

While the corporate sector also appeared to be serving as a catalyst with its various initiatives and incentives, this change also seemed to be a consequence of the fact that more women were entering engineering programmes across the spectrum of disciplines and were automatically being picked in larger numbers by business schools.

However, the momentum of this much needed change has plateaued if not lost.

This was evident from the details of a recent study, by professional networking platform LinkedIn, which illustrated how the male-to-female ratio in top-management at companies in India has not changed over the past five years. In leadership profiles such as vice-president, director, partner and CXO, there are only two women for every 10 men – as was the case in 2020.

The study, which involved LinkedIn analysing 120 million of its profiles across as many as 18 sectors, found that important fields such as media, information technology, real estate, as well as transport and logistics have been witnessing a shocking decline in the number of women holding leadership positions in corporate India.

This shows that although most firms and organizations have taken steps to plug the gender gap, their efforts have not yet improved gender diversity in decision-making positions. This was all the more disturbing in light of the study’s findings that there was no such downward trend in women applying for leadership roles.

So why are men dominating the leadership field in the corporate world? Many experts point to gender discrimination, societal biases, skills mismatch and dated hiring processes and practices as the main culprits.

But why is it so important for India (or any other country for that matter) to have a healthy level of gender diversity?

It is no secret that women bring a different set of strengths to leadership roles. As numerous studies have shown, women are superior to men at multitasking, at being empathetic and at team-building. A separate LinkedIn study has shown how women leaders have been at the forefront of advocating career growth, skills development, internal mobility opportunities and flexible work arrangements – all of which are some of the crying needs of the times.

The sooner all these important needs – including the one to bridge the yawning gender gap in the fields of education and workplace – are met, the better it will be for the country’s prospects of a brighter future.

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