Towards Gender Accountable Education

An opinion piece by Dr. Garimella Sai Ramani

Independent India’s foremost achievement, an inclusive education system, is anything but inclusive for women either in content or in the opportunities that it provides for women to join various research fora.  A recent report of the benchmarking study mapping the opportunities and obstacles faced by women in science in Brazil, South Africa, India, the Republic of Korea, Indonesia, the US, the EU on women in science and technology related positions done by the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), and funded by the Elsevier Foundation has reported that the numbers of women actually working in the biotechnology and other basic science domain areas are declining across the board – only 12% of the S&E workforce in India was female in 2010.  While there was an increase in the presence of women in all sectors of management, the presence of women on the boards of the corporate sector and other higher education institutions is less than five percent. The report indicates that access to education is not a solution in and of itself. It’s only one part of what should be a multi-dimensional policymaking approach.
Such multi-dimensional approach could begin on sensitising towards ensuring gender parity in the operational dynamics of these institutions. Equal opportunities and gender entitlements have been subjected to much debate and sometimes scorned at, especially at the time of allotment of these gender entitlements. The reason could be that our institutions at every level of the education ladder have not seen the entitlements as having an extrapolated behavioural impact.  The result of such apathy is that we have not trained generations of our citizens to look at women as having an equal and inclusive life anywhere beyond the confines of patriarchy.  I present two scenarios from the recall of recent events– two scenarios that we are not strange to, and yet the need to address them remains.
Scenario one – A young school boy in a well-known South Delhi school voyeurs, at an even younger girl of the same school, in front of the school gate and when the girl was with her parents.  There was a callous look of achievement along with an indifference to the girl’s discomfort writ large on the boy’s face as he visually followed the girl’s movements with her parents in the car through the kerb on to the road.  The school, even if reported, could put forth an argument that since it happened outside the physical premises of the school, it could not possibly be asked to get involved in the issue, leave alone an explanation.  The school technically may not be wrong, but it could have possibly left a sense of insecurity in the minds of the parents of the girl.
Scenario two – a young female researcher with an appreciable academic record and enthusiasm for the work and workplace presents herself for a selection process for an academic position.  The selection committee, packed with men of academic brilliance and commendable achievements, questions her family reasons and intentions for applying for the position in a manner that is hinting disadvantage.  She was also subjected to question highly opinionated and in a manner that put her to discomfort.  Needless to say her silence and meek submission to the discomfort in the name of interview, left her and many like her, having heard her experience, in doubt about the quality of human relations in the academic institutions that she hitherto idolized.
These are just two scenarios highlighting the gender apathy and insensitivity at two stages of a women’s life in the society outside her home.  It could probably not be gainsaid when we say that behavioural patterns set in the early life only continue and get extrapolated in later stages of life.
An analysis of the first scenario demonstrates that our school education did little beyond some math and science and nothing towards behavioural development.  While the school boards have issued directives for adolescent education, not much compliance has been seen.  Many schools in India, with the exception of a few in big cities like Delhi and Bangalore,taught nothing of adolescent education, while a few had a session only for female students at the middle-school level.
 Often it has been noticed that curricular presence of knowledge relating toadolescentbehaviour and its management is avoided by the school reason being the cultural biases in the society.  School curriculum in the west is specially oriented towards the adolescent behavioural patterns.  The Ontario school curriculum specifically deals with male adolescent behaviour and has sessions to help manage and correct any deviation in the boys during adolescence.  School boards in India, with a more sensitive curriculum can further the movement towards a healthy gender sensitive society.
Scenario two demonstrates the absence of gender sensitivity campaigns and reporting systems at the entry-level.  Schools and colleges run security campaigns and processes for girls.  Unfortunately none of them are directed at educating the male perpetrators of such behaviour towards any sensitive improvement.  In the US, there are systems from the college administration and also community campaigns that tell freshmen students the permissible and prohibited behavioural patterns during their campus life.  Male freshmen students are educated and sensitised about the prohibited behaviour towards their fellow female students.  It is time that higher education institutions in India run regular campaigns and programmes checking upon the insensitive behaviour towards female students.
Selection processes can be more gender-friendly in research institutions, thereby ensuring more women in higher and decisional-making positions.  To start off with we can make these institutions more gender accountable, at the selection process.  In many corporate houses, the HR department, before the technical interview process is initiated, vets the possible areas of discussion to ensure gender sensitivity parameters.  The department also ensures that the interview is within the pre-designed format, by circulating the format to all the concerned departments.  To ensure that the candidate was not put to any discomfort, after the technical interview the HR department informs the person about the availability of blind reporting against any instances of discomfort. Another method could be that a female officer is present in the interview itself.
Higher education institutions in India could very well do with a gender sensitivity audit of their selection processes. Media reports about insensitivity at these institutions have been doing rounds at regular intervals.  More such harassing behaviour is seen in positionsof a non-permanent nature, as the candidate appears regularly for the process and has silent submission as the only possible option.  A few ways to make our institutions and the processes more gender friendly could be –
a) A rule from the regulatory bodies that a female officer be present in the interview process and actively ensure that the academic credentials alone are subject to discussion and nothing else.
b) A possible outlining of the process of the interview, so that it becomes more structured and less open for any opinionated comments and remarks.
c) A statement and commitment from the institution that their processes, including selection processes, are for gender sensitivity, and are subject to continuous audit and improvement.
Women’s presence in higher education and research will become significant in numbers and value only when our institutions are gender-friendly in content and processes and not remain the traditional silos of patriarchy.
[The above article appeared on the Education Portal ]