Lack of gender diversity in Indian science and tech universities perpetrates a toxic bro-culture

A modern education institute is not truly revolutionary if it still supports and practices the regressive systemic inequalities.

Plaksha University has been in the news recently for all the right reasons: it has an audacious and much-needed objective ‘to reimagine technology research and education for the 21st century’. It aims to infuse the hustle of Silicon Valley into the country’s tech talent.

A powerful collaboration between India’s top chief experience officers (CXOs) and international educators, it has a carefully designed interdisciplinary curriculum that would make India’s young graduates ‘future ready’. They have together raised an investment commitment of Rs 2,000 cr, among other required resources and partnerships. Personally, I am thrilled to see two of my alma-maters, UC Berkeley and IIT Delhi, be part of this journey.

A part of me wants to congratulate the team for its triumphant endeavour of bringing together a big group of influencers.

And yet when I stumbled upon the photographs of a stage full of all men and the list of the associated people, I cringed noticing the infamous tech-bro or brogrammer culture that it is a testimony to and would potentially advance further.

There is no woman in the co-founders’ team of seven, no woman in the academic advisory board of eight, no woman among the donors, two women listed in the founding team and trustees of 31, and two in the faculty list of 17 for their one-year tech fellowship.

Currently, Plaksha is represented and led by a large number of upper-caste men — not much is revolutionary about this image or the set-up. On the contrary, it is unimaginative, ignorant and toxic. It reflects the internalised failings of the current tech industry and education culture all across the world and even more in India.

Representational Image. Reuters

Representational Image. Reuters

It took nine months for a team of 45 CXOs to come up with a name that would be fitting for the university. As one of them quoted recently in an interview, “Once decided it couldn’t be changed.” And yet, this predominantly-male team did not find the lack of diversity in the team important enough to act on it. It is a choice that would set the precedent for the ‘patrifocal’ (or patriarchal focused) culture of the Institute for years to come.

It is worth pausing to reflect when a team of visionaries working on the future of education missed one of the most glaring problems of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) culture — the conspicuous lack of diversity.

Lack of gender diversity is nothing but proactive discrimination

According to a global benchmarking study, India ranks lowest among the world’s leading knowledge-based economies on the parameters that boost diversity and equality in STEM.

This is well reflected in the gender representation statistics of India’s top colleges. For instance, there is no woman in IIT Delhi’s board of governors, one out of 15 departments has a woman head, two out of 11 centres have women leadership, and in 2017 there were only 10 percent female students. Recently, IIT alumni in the Bay Area in California organised their annual event - it had no women keynote speakers amid eight men and one woman executive in the pool of 33 startups — an expected but disappointing long-term outcome of a male-dominated institute. Plaksha is focused on filling the gaps that institutions like IITs have failed to address and yet, it seems to be following similar footprints.

For the sceptics out there, I want to be clear here that I am not asking institutions like Plaksha to have women (or other minorities) on board just for the sake of gender diversity. Such “tokenism” does not serve much beneficial purpose, especially not to the women. More substantially, I am emphasising on the lack of focus on creative ideas exchange that comes with gender and social diversity in businesses. I am highlighting the fact that women contributors are not sought for their contributions in conceptualising modern education reforms.

It could no longer be seen as an oversight that women are not part of higher management. In this information age, such willful ignorance is nothing less than proactive discrimination. Also, diversity in leadership in businesses and academia is not just a moral obligation but a critical strategic decision.

Gender diversity has proven benefits

There is growing research proving that businesses and academic settings with diverse leadership are more creative, progressive, inclusive, stable and economically profitable. More gender-equal education and occupations result in better employees, reduced costs for staff turnover, and an increase in corporate social responsibility. Lack of diversity in staff and faculty create an institutional climate that offers a suboptimal educational experience for female students when compared to their male counterparts.

Moreover, the lack of female role models in faculty and leadership also impacts the mentoring and future career trajectories of female students in STEM fields. When the top management is not diverse, it results in similar hiring and partnerships patterns, thus, further marginalising the minorities.

Such male-dominated boardrooms and teams have also shown to foster a culture of sexual harassment and causal sexism — a rising concern in most tech workplaces and education settings in the era of #MeToo. Tech giants in Silicon Valley, the global flagbearer of STEM innovation, are investing millions to improve their diversity in leadership and staff.

Realising its importance, IITs now have a gender-based reservations policy in the admissions — an insufficient but important step towards gender equity. Most universities in the US have dedicated initiatives, investments, and policies to enhance diversity in their faculty, staff, and students. Among various best practices, universities now make their hiring teams and management attend Bystander Leadership programs which help them acknowledge and understand their implicit biases, making diversity one of their core institutional values, do regular surveys to understand the impact and status of diversity on campus, conducting stakeholders’ roundtables etc. In fact, it is shocking to notice that UC Berkeley, which is widely known for its continued efforts to increase diversity did not or failed to make an effort for the same in their partnership with Plaksha.

In several contexts, it is common that founders do not treat diversity as one of their key priorities, especially at an early stage. But it is much more expensive to fix the issue once the organisation grows into a large, complex and a homogeneous entity than at the beginning. Having more diverse leadership is an inadequate but a very key step towards building and retaining an egalitarian culture in any setup.

A chance to make things right

We don’t have a complete absence of women achievers and visionaries. We, however, have the dearth of male allies stepping up their game to recognise their role in making STEM a very gendered domain and to take ownership of their responsibility to change that. Since building from scratch, this could have been (and still can be) Plaksha’s golden opportunity to be an exemplary leader worldwide to show how to do innovation in STEM right.

Plaksha aims to prepare its students to be able to use technology for addressing the complex challenges of India. Part of that pedagogy would potentially include the lesson that technology is powerful but not necessarily sufficient in itself. When it is not rooted in the principles of equity, intersectionality, and equal accessibility, its power strengthens the systems of oppression. It seems the management team betrayed the project’s key purpose.

The innovation-focused organisations must deliberate on the arising critical question: Can anything be truly transformational if the current organisational structures are rooted in the failures of the past? Would Plaksha consider itself successful if the leadership of 1,000 startups it aspires to help create in the next decade has a similar gender representation as its current team?

No modern education institute is truly revolutionary if it still supports and practices the regressive systemic inequalities. The country deserves better from current and future technology and management leaders. I hope Plaksha takes a cue and implement substantive measures to enhance diversity, I am confident that they will thoroughly love/value it.

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