‘Don’t need favors, skills enough for women’

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KOLKATA

Notwithstanding the notion that society is still discomfited by the progress of women, a clutch of female technopreneurs and faculty at India’s oldest IIT, the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, have called for inculcating gender equity in young minds and providing opportunities based on merit and not on gender – emphasizing skills and confidence are enough to climb to the top.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, IANS spoke to a number of female researchers and faculty at IIT-Kharagpur – who have shattered the glass ceiling – about the dearth of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) and the issue of the gender gap at IITs.

Of a total of 11,026 students at IIT Kharagpur, only about 16 per cent are women. The ratio has remained consistent in the last three years and is an improvement by about four per cent since 2010. And, only 71 female teachers figure among the total of 620.

“Unfortunately, the progress and advancement of women makes society uncomfortable even today. A woman with an opinion and a strong personality is oftentimes looked down upon. A change in this trend is only possible if the perception of women is changed in the society at large and inculcated at a young age in boys and girls,” Swagata Dasgupta, Associate Dean, Continuing Education Program at IIT-Kharagpur, told IANS.

Asked about her personal challenges, the veteran faculty member said that at the early stages of her career, she sometimes felt “women with voice and opinion are not appreciated”.

“The scenario has no doubt changed over the years, but still persists to a lesser degree,” the acclaimed academician added.

Poonam Gupta, alumnus and entrepreneur, who defines herself as a “go-getter”, debunks the myth that women shy away from hard work. For her, one of the major challenges that women face, not just in STEM, but almost everywhere in society, is the outlook of people towards them. “They are usually more hard-working than men because they usually have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition or pay,” Gupta, the co-founder & CEO of Alive Home Technologies Private Limited, told IANS. The company, incubated at IIT’s Science and Technology Entrepreneurs’ Park (STEP), is working towards emart electrification at the institute. As women dig in their heels deeper, often in male bastions, Gupta reiterates there is still a long way to go.

Asked about IITs, Dasgupta, a highly cited researcher, stressed that premier institutes are “not isolated islands”.

“The solution has to come from the wider population. IITs need to take proactive measures, for example, recruit more women faculty, promote women to positions of responsibility and create a conducive environment for students and faculty,” Dasgupta explained.

Nandini Bhandaru, recipient of the Young Scientist Award (Indian Science Congress, 2016), believes that the scenario is already changing.

“Our lab has more female PhD students than males. And together we make a great team,” Bhandaru, an alumnus of the Department of Chemical Engineering, told IANS. However, she laid strong emphasis for women to keep their eyes on the prize.

“The girls need to focus. They must start believing in themselves, take responsibility, have a big, grand picture … you just cannot stand at the side, always seeking help from a male colleague to fix up a gas cylinder, or can’t always refuse to come down to the lab to collect data at the middle of the night, if need be. I think IITs do offer that security to us, and girls out here should make the best of it, rather than spending their time on trivialities,” Bhandaru elaborated.

So are there enough chances for women?

“It is not entirely true that there are less opportunities – but in order to avail of these opportunities a woman faces additional hurdles in the form of societal prejudice, family pressure and a need to conform to the stereotypes,” Dasgupta clarified.

“Women must not feel the stress associated with trying to prove oneself over and over again as they tend to have a more ‘feeling guilty’ syndrome. A supportive environment will definitely make adjustments easier.” Gupta and Bhandaru are clear about one thing: women don’t need favors. “I don’t think, we need pity, favors, and concessions. We need equal rights and opportunities. This is my definition of feminism,” Gupta asserted.

IANS