women education

Leadership for women’s equality and women empowerment in higher education

Girls and women are entering schools and colleges in ever-larger numbers almost all over the world, although access to women education remains a challenge in many countries. There are hopeful signs of change according to the World Atlas of Gender Equality in Education (UNESCO, 2012).

It highlights the fact that dropout rates are higher for boys than girls in 63 per cent of countries. Additionally, women are a majority in tertiary (higher) women education in two-thirds of the countries which provided data. But this is not so at the highest levels, namely, Ph.D. graduates and researchers in which men are 56 and 71 per cent, respectively; in other words, the higher the level, the lower the representation of women students. The situation is similar in India. At the research and Ph D. level, Indian women are about one-third of enrolment.1 Another trend is that there is a subject-wise variation in access, for example in law (25.6 per cent) and engineering (28 per cent) in which men dominate (University Grants Commission, 2011-Further, even if their enrolment at the undergraduate level in commerce and management is increasing, they may still not be taking competitive tests in equal proportion to men.

In spite of these trends, women, though small in number, are entering the hitherto male-dominated professions, slowly and gradually. For example, in India, three women topped the Chartered Accountancy examination in 2011 and their pass percentage was higher than that of men. In 2010, the top two candidates and five out of the first 25 in the civil services examinations were women. These women are harbingers of change, no doubt, yet they remain a small minority and are not reflective of a broader trend. Women’s near absence in top management positions across the board is now well known. In the higher women education sector, too, they are almost invisible at the top. It is by now well established that a majority of the senior positions in the universities are held by men, while women are concentrated at the lower rungs. Men also hold most of the decision-making positions, namely, membership of executive, academic and administrative committees. Therefore, a pertinent question: why do women academics stagnate and remain relatively disadvantaged when it comes to promotions and leadership positions?

The search for the answer to the question led to research on higher educational institutions, or HEIs, their organisation and functioning. A critical outcome of these researches was that higher educational institutions are not gender-neutral in their organisation and functioning (Blackmore, 1999; Brooks and McInnon, 2001; David and Woodward, 1998). Researchers and activists have also highlighted socio-cultural factors such as the impact of socialisation and social expectations, which are internalised by women, which affect their goals and aspirations, on the one hand, and institutional barriers to women’s advancement in women education, on the other. Therefore, women’s invisibility at top levels in the system also became a focus of study and research.

The capacity-building programme of the UGC, of which I write, is based on the premise that there are sufficient numbers of qualified women to take up leadership in higher educational institutions, provided they could be propelled and empowered to come out of their comfort zones and work toward a definite goal with a clear vision. Women have to see the structural and organisational barriers that prevent them from reclaiming their place, and to take up positions of administrative and managerial leadership. They have to be provided the capacity to perceive it, and to overcome it in the institutions in which they are located.

Women Education in the Academe

Research on gender and leadership in universities has exploded two myths relating to higher women education. The first relates to the objectivity and neutrality of organisations. However, the underlying assumptions about the objectivity of organisations, their functioning and the place of women in them have been re-examined from a gender perspective, which led to the understanding that the organisations are social constructions. Further, the system being gender-neutral is not enough, it has to be pro-women, i.e. make conscious efforts to integrate women into the system; neither access nor equal participation in leadership and management is possible. The second myth was that women who can access higher women education are from privileged homes and, therefore, they do not have any problems in the academe. However, the gendered processes and structures in higher women education are critical to the creation and reproduction of gender differences. The reality of academic life for women, irrespective of their class, is different from the ideal of academic institutions, and the universities do not promote merit and equality (Chanana, 2008: 8-9)

Several explanations are forthcoming to explain the inequalities in the career patterns of women and men in the universities. For example, women move up slowly because they face a ‘chilly climate’ in the universities; because they generally enter the profession at lower levels and stay there in spite of publishing and undertaking research and acquiring doctorate degrees, i.e. even when their academic profile fits in with the ‘hypothetical’ paradigm of a male professional. Others introduced the concepts of ‘the greasy pole’, the ‘glass ceiling’ and ‘the man-centred universities’ or masculinist institutions, which limit career patterns for women. Therefore, such patterns of inequality demonstrate that the negative effect on women’s academic careers is not due to lack of capability (ibid.).

What, then, is it to be a woman in the academe? How do women negotiate the contradictions between the personal and the professional, which have to be resolved in order to move on as academics. They have been referred to as ‘ambivalent academics’. The majority of women in universities are also regarded as the ‘outsiders and the disadvantaged’, ‘the others’ or ‘double deviants’ (Baglihole, 1994: 15-28). They are double deviants because not only are they working in the male-dominated world, but are also expecting equal rewards. Acker and Webber describe their position as ‘liminal’—in the process of becoming something else. They are the ‘outsiders within … they are unable to just ‘be’: they must always be something (2006: 486-96).

However, all women are not outsiders; nor do they all play subordinate roles. For example, although higher women education is, by and large, dominated by men who wield power not only as heads of the HEIs, but also permeate decision-making bodies in and outside them, power is not equally distributed or wielded. Therefore, all women may not be equally exploited or subordinated. Some exceptional women get positions of leadership and responsibility by virtue of their merit and competence. They retain their distinctive style of functioning and interaction, while some remain mere tokens. Male academics who join colleges and universities have the advantage of seeing men in positions of leadership, decision-making and authority. In addition, they are also under the tutelage and sponsorship of male professors who are their role models and mentors. It is also easy for them to get into the ‘old boys’ networks and to have access to these for support. The sponsorship of senior male professors has a positive impact on the self-esteem and confidence of younger men academics. All this helps men in the recruitment and selection process. They are also better placed in terms of promotion prospects; to gain research experience; to get invited to conferences for paper presentations and, ultimately, for publications. Networking is the key to academic success and is difficult for women to establish, especially across gender (Chanana, 2003: 381-90). All-male networks are effective for lobbying and facilitate exchange of critical information. They are also the platforms for converting ‘informal visibility’ to ‘formal visibility’, that is, securing memberships of important committees and leadership roles (ibid.). They are visible in a university’s academic administration at the higher levels.

Women are not included in the all-male formal or informal networks in departments and universities, thereby excluding them from national and international networks. No doubt, women have started establishing girls’ networks, yet such women are still a minority. They need the same socialisation into the profession that men get from male networks and sponsors.

The understanding that there are very few women in leadership positions in the administration and management of universities and about the gendered organisation and functioning of the universities, on the one hand, and the constraints of socialisation, dual careers and their impact on the goalposts of women faculty, on the other, led to the formulation of a programme to build the capacity of women faculty to enlarge their professional activities and to move up in the system. It was based on the premise that there is a glass ceiling and that women faculty have to understand the gendered nature of higher educational institutions, their governance and the male-centred academic leadership. Further, it is not true that there are not enough qualified women for top positions in higher educational institutions. Additionally, they had to come out of their comfort zone and make efforts to create or, if necessary, demand their rightful place in the system. In order for women to understand the system and themselves, the Capacity Building of Women Managers in Higher Education programme is a step in that direction.

Capacity building of women managers in higher women education

The National Educational Policy, 1986, highlighted the role of women education in promoting equality for women in the educational system as well as in empowering them. It recognised the fact that women needed special supports and programmes in order to bridge the gap between the participation and representation of women and men in the higher educational system. This programme is a very critical initiative in empowering women to claim due space for themselves and also move to the top.

The programme is about management and administration of higher educational institutions. It is also about enabling women to do management with a difference; to understand issues of leadership, power and governance and how they operate in the system. It assumes that these trained women will make a difference in the system when they occupy leadership positions.

The programme started in 1997 under the auspices of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in collaboration with the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. The initiative was taken by the then chairperson, Professor Armaity Desai. After the first collaborative workshop in 1998, the UGC took over the responsibility of training women faculty. Since 2004, it has been continuing with vigour and commitment in the different regions of India.

The focus of the workshops is dual, i.e. on the self and the institutions. On the one hand, the institutions do not provide an enabling environment and, on the other, women themselves also do not play a proactive role in moving up. It focuses on five dimensions: women’s study perspective, governance, academic leadership personal and professional roles, and on research-all with a focus on women. It encourages the participants to look inwards to go beyond the stereotypes of the self. It also moves away from an essentialist position regarding the differences between women and men with the expectation that women will find their place in the top administrative and managerial posts in higher women education. Interdisciplinarity is the core of the programme because participants are invited from across all disciplines. It is also inclusive in terms of caste, tribe, religion, class, rural/urban and tribal locations.

The Training Programme of Women Education

There are two levels of workshops which form the core.3 The first-level workshops are Sensitisation, Awareness and Motivation, or SAM workshops. The second level are Training of Trainers workshops or ToTs. Selected participants from SAM workshops are invited to ToTs. They become SAM trainers. Both these workshops are being held since inception in different parts of me country and have reached out to about 4,000 women in the furthest corners of the country. By now, the programme has trained a mass of local faculty members, or SAM trainers, who are pushing the programme forward at the local level.

SAM workshops are residential in the main while ToTs are all residential. In SAM workshops the focus is on understanding the self in a social context; to motivate the women and to reorient their thinking; and to help them understand the systemic barriers faced by them. ToTs give them the skills to become SAM trainers.

SAM workshops bring together quite a number of women who have never moved out from their homes and towns and also have had no academic interaction or exposure outside their institutions. Some of the participants have shared their experience either at SAM workshops, or at ToTs, of how their visions about their academic career and about themselves have changed due to the impact of the workshop.


While the purpose of the programme may seem to have well-defined parameters, namely the five dimensions around which the workshops revolve, the outcomes were several, which are emphasised and highlighted during the workshop. The positive responses of the participants came from across different disciplines. It is pertinent that they could relate to and understand the purpose and aim of the workshop. It is illustrated below with some cases,5 cutting across disciplines and location. It was hoped that in order to build their capacities and in order for them to create space for other women and for themselves, they had to have self-esteem and confidence, the willingness to work beyond the classroom and contribute to the institutions’ development, take on larger roles, proactively network with co-participants and, through them, with others.

When I was invited to participate in a SAM workshop for Capacity Building for Women Managers in Higher Education in 2007, I had no idea that my entire life was to take a new direction. I expected it to be another welcome diversion like the seminars we routinely attended. The actual experience was a turning point in my life. Though the first two days of the workshop seemed to befuddle me with serious issues being diluted through games, energisers, chart-making and impromptu-talking, it sank in that these were a means to an end. While, on the one hand, I realised that the information I was struggling to gather from diverse sources was handed down to me in organised modules and manuals, on the other hand, I was surprised at the transformation 1 was undergoing. I was actually talking about my own self both in personal and professional spheres. I was busy interacting, connecting, overcoming inhibitions, putting forward opinions on a platform elsewhere denied to me. One of the greatest gifts of the SAM workshop was the network which it left in its wake. Even after the workshop, I reached out to the participants, read and wrote profusely for various opportunities it opened up for me. I gained confidence and took giant strides in decision-making. I realised I could become an able administrator too and then the SAM workshop and the ToTs with the many workshops, where I had gone as a Trainer, gave me opportunity to meet the great women whom I admired and wanted to emulate— independent, out-spoken, disciplined yet generous, egalitarian. I have never looked back since the workshop gave me the motivation to search for my true self. I have written, published, organised, taught, trained, motivated, counselled, advised with a never-before effectiveness. I have faced interviews with greater command and determination. My selection and subsequent joining a University in 2012 is another stepping stone to help myself and others like me. My sincere gratitude to the SAM movement, which has made my life meaningful.

(Case 1, humanities, undergraduate women’s college in a suburban location in the east)

Several faculty members reported that they had started using the interactive methodology of the workshops in the classroom for better outcomes. There were others who were already active teachers and researchers, had a good record of publishing and undertaking research projects when they attended the workshop. One of them was thinking of continuing her academic career after retirement at 58 (most state university teachers retire at this age). An administrative position was far from her thoughts.

I attended a SAM workshop in December 2010. I was due to retire from State government service as Associate Professor of Economics employed in an aided College. I wished to continue my interest in the field of higher women education. But how? … Maybe I can start a study centre of the university. Maybe I can join Central University. Or I can become a Principal of a self-financed College (private unaided for profit college). But the prospect of becoming a Principal was not an attractive option at that point of time At this juncture I attended a SAM workshop, which gave me a new perspective about the need for women to be in administrative positions. I became aware that there were very few women at the higher echelons of administration and leadership I learnt that as an administrator one has the power to bring about changes. Very attractive indeed! The prospect of becoming a Principal all of \ sudden became very bright and beckoning!

The change in attitude, which happened in my case should happen to every faculty member and Principal. Now I am working as the Principal of a co-educational college in a position to instil self-confidence in my students and faculty. I take a crucial decision keeping in mind the special needs of women students. I am very happy I attended the SAM Workshop.

(Case 2, social scientist, undergraduate co-educational college in a rural setting in the south)

Working in a small city or in a town with a secure job in a government-aided institution puts women in the comfort zone from which they do not want to move. They need a push and a reorientation to move out and up.

I was a typical college teacher who was involved only in the teaching of women undergraduate students in a women’s college. I had studied in the same college. As such, I was living in a closed and secure environment. I had a comfortable life, both personal and work-wise.

Later in 2005,1 got the opportunity to attend ToTs at Chennai. This was the first time I stayed away from home for six days, leaving my small children. I was feeling very guilty. But, to my surprise, I did not actually miss my family as much as I thought I would. On the contrary, I realised that my role was not limited to my family and teaching in college. I found a new world unfolding in front of me. I realised that women can, and need to, actively participate in the broader academic life. On my return, I took keen interest in the Centre for Women’s Studies, which I was heading. From a time when travelling alone was an unthinkable task, I started travelling far and wide in the cities and interior parts, conducting awareness programmes. As a SAM trainer I also transacted manuals in colleges and universities as well as organised four SAM workshops in my college to motivate women faculty around the college. Later, I applied for the post of Controller of Examinations in a specialised Central University in a metropolis. I was selected for the post. This was a challenging situation. If I chose to accept this post I had to migrate from my home, where I was settled for the last 25 years. After long discussions with my husband, we decided that I should take the plunge and accept the appointment. Before 2005, I would not have dreamt in my wildest dreams that I would leave my home town and take up a position outside of my college and the city.

(Case 3, economist, undergraduate women’s college in an urban location in the south)

They could balance their personal and professional lives better, even though they began to give some/more time to the latter than they had hitherto done. Again, the imperative of networking and not taking things lying down came home to a participant who was happy being a good teacher and an academic, irrespective of whether she had even considered administration.

I became a full professor in January 2002 and was eligible to be the head of the Department, as the current head had already completed three years. Headship is by rotation for the duration of three years. However, another male professor, who was promoted with me, was made the head in May 2002. I took it lightly, as I was of the nature that I accepted what was given to me. I was also satisfied academically. I had set up the first-of-its-kind labs and had also started a new M. Tech. programme in Electrical Power System Management.

In 2003, I attended a SAM workshop and that changed my perspective about taking things lying down. In 2005, when the Department headship was again to be decided, manipulations started at the highest level to deprive me of headship a second time. However, I could sense the undercurrents and discovered that the ordinance regarding the rotation of headship was being modified by the academic council of the university to give it to another male professor.

I mobilised enough support from the Vice Chancellor, the AC and EC members and the teacher’s association of the University. The resolution to amend the ordinance was withdrawn from the AC agenda and I was given the Headship in May 2005. The advantages of networking that I learnt from SAM and also the confidence to reclaim what was due to me helped me in becoming proactive in my professional development. I have researched, published extensively and become a part of the international community of professional scholars.

(Case 4 computer scientist, in a central university in a metropolis in the north)

A scientist has become a very active SAM trainer and supporter. Although she holds the position of Principal of a medical college and is extremely busy, she always finds time to contribute to the programme. She, too, was perplexed when she was invited to attend the workshop.

I attended the SAM workshop in 2006 in Chennai. I was already a professor and head of the Department. When I was invited to attend the SAM workshop the words ‘Capacity Building’ aroused my curiosity. Till then I had no experience of interacting with colleagues from social sciences and humanities. That was another reason for me to want to know what was in store for me. At that point, I had already done my Ph.D. and was thinking of further research. The SAM workshop inspired me for leadership. I started thinking of becoming a Vice-Chancellor, but I knew that there was another stepping stone to achieve that. This made me think about aiming for the post of Principal. I worked for it and got it. I learnt several lessons from the SAM workshop. These were: inspiration for leadership; the will to balance my personal and professional roles and face any situation; how to manage my department; one must be knowledgeable to be able to hold leadership positions; the criticality of networking; the self-confidence to take decisions on my own (women have a tendency to react when offered a position, to react with, 1 will think about it’, consult the family or the husband). I also learnt to recognise my capacity and my strength so that I could identify the role that I could play in a given situation. I have an established position within my profession due to my contribution to knowledge through research, publications and participation in professional conferences. (Case 5, pharmacognosy in the field of pharmaceutical science, principal of a medical college of a private6 university located in a metropolis in the south).

Reclaiming one’s due place in academia, balancing personal and professional lives and, in fact, becoming a confident member of the national and international academic community, thereby becoming visible: these are also the outcomes. Some participants may have experienced or gained from one or more of these dimensions. There are exceptions who underwent a holistic development.

On getting nominated by the Vice-Chancellor to attend the SAM workshop in 2003, I wondered what there would be for me as a

Botanist and Environmentalist. This theme seemed to be suitable for social scientists. Nonetheless, I came and attended. After a day or so I realised its importance and was happy that I came. \ could interact with faculty members from across disciplines. I understood that there were common issues and problems on which we can unite and also network. Here, my vision broadened and I came out of the narrow confines of thinking only as a scientist working within the narrow confines of the laboratory. As a result of this I have been able to do more and better quality research, effective teaching, and actively participate in academic governance and leadership. Subsequently, I have published many research papers in reputed national and international journals. I have also handled several research projects funded by different agencies in addition to organising a number of national and international seminars, conferences, refresher courses. I regularly attend national and international conferences, seminars and workshops. I have collaborations with many National and International Institutions. I have also received a national award.

SAM has also helped me in executing bold and daring academic decisions. I recall my experience of how the physical space, which was critical to the functioning of our Department, was being taken unfairly away by a very undemocratic decision of the institution. I networked in the university to win support and evolved strategies to thwart the attempt to give the floor of our Department to another. I even brought the media in to highlight the issue and succeeded in retaining the physical space. I might not have done anything had I not attended SAM.

I also learnt to balance my personal and professional life better. For example, I could withstand a crisis in my personal life and continue to work professionally without upsetting the former. I would say that the impact of SAM was holistic. (Case 6, botanist and environmentalist in a state university in the north)


Overall, the gains have been multifaceted and have surpassed the expectations of those of us who were involved in the initial designing and implementation of the programme. No doubt, the takings have varied from participant to participant, yet the positive feedback and responses of quite a few instils confidence that the programme has made a difference and empowered the women faculty who have been associated with it. They begin to understand the systemic barriers and how to overcome them, along with the barriers ingrained in them through the socialisation process at home, which also underlie the educational structures and organisations.

For quite a few, teaching is no longer a routine activity. Being a teacher is not just confined to the classroom, but beyond. They have become aware of the larger role that they can play within their institutions. This perspective leads to women empowerment and propels them to leave the ‘sticky floor’ in order to realise their full potential in a larger network of women faculty from across the country. They can see the interplay of structure and power within the institutions and its negative impact on their educational careers. Some of them are very visible in the profession, have the leadership qualities and persona as well as a curriculum vitae that is required to be at the top. The question is: will they move to the top?

Leadership for women’s equality and women empowerment in higher education
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