Women still minority at IITs, efforts on to achieve gender balance: First woman IIT director Preeti Aghalayam

It is a fact that women have been a minority at IITs. Things have improved a bit in the past few years but the problem still exists and it is at all levels - both at students and faculty

First woman IIT director Preeti Aghalayam (photo: News by Careers360)
First woman IIT director Preeti Aghalayam (photo: News by Careers360)


Women are still a minority at Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and despite constant efforts to improve the gender ratio on campuses, it's still a long way to go, according to Preeti Aghalyam, the first woman to become an IIT director.

While the first IIT was set up at Kharagpur in 1951, it is after seven decades that a woman has been appointed as head of the prestigious institute. But for Aghalayam, director-in-charge of the new IIT in Zanzibar, it is not just about breaking a glass ceiling but "Once an IITian, always an IITian" theory.

IIT-Madras, set up in 1959, has become the first IIT in the country to launch an international campus, with the new institute in Tanzania's Zanzibar set to begin its first academic session in October.

Forty-nine-year-old Aghalayam has spent the past few months travelling to and from India to Zanzibar and is busy setting things in motion.

"For me, the fact that it is the first IIT campus abroad is more important than me being the first woman to head an IIT. It is not just about breaking the glass ceiling for me. It is more of 'Once and IITian, always an IITian' for me.

"I studied at IIT Madras. I have worked at IIT Bombay before and have been teaching at IIT Madras since 14 years, so it is just an extension of the kind of love and passion that I have for how things work at an IIT... Many of my great friends are from IITs and I also met my husband at IIT Madras," Aghalyam told PTI in an interview from Zanzibar.

Aghalyam's appointment comes at a time when several IITs have been making a conscious effort to improve the skewed gender ratio on campus.

"It is a fact that women have been a minority at IITs. Things have improved a bit in the past few years but the problem still exists and it is at all levels - both at students and faculty. We are about 12 per cent women faculty at IIT Madras. The problem is not about gender inclusivity on campuses but about whole perception around technology institutions," she said.

Engineering colleges in India have come a long way since the 1990s when the ratio of boys and girls enrolment was 10:1. This ratio decreased to 7:1 in the early 2000s, and to 4:1 in the mid and late 2000s. It deteriorated further in 2014 when most of the IITs had anywhere between 5 per cent and 12 per cent of girl population on their campuses.

IITs in India admitted 995 girls and 9,883 boys, a year before the supernumerary quota was introduced for females in 2018. During the admission for 2022-23 academic session, as many as 3310 girls, or 20 per cent of the total number of seats, have confirmed admissions across the 23 IITs. The admission for 2023-24 academic session are still underway.

Asked about whether her appointment was a conscious call by IIT Madras to send out a strong message about gender inclusivity, Aghalayam said, "Every time we visited Zanzibar as part of the IIT Madras contingent, we noticed that the representation of women on their side is quite significant. So, it was important that we do this mindfully and our effort will also be to have gender balance in the new campus.

There are no rigid norms around it right now but in the coming years, we will definitely work towards achieving it." Aghalayam completed her BTech in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1995 and her PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2000. She has worked as a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, Cambridge and faculty at IIT Bombay.

Aghalayam joined IIT Madras in 2010, where she is currently a Professor in the Chemical Engineering department. She was recently acknowledged as one of the 75 Women in STEM by the Principal Scientific Advisor's office.

However, she was always sure that she doesn't want to join the industry but pursue academics as her career, she said.

"I come from a family of academicians, my mother, my father, my extended family, everyone is an academician, so it runs in the family. I was sure about pursuing academics as a career since class 8 and it has been a fulfilling journey," she said.

Aghalayam has been the nodal officer for the Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions (GATI) programme at IIT Madras.

"As part of the programme, I and my colleagues had a chance to look at gender-segregated data in every sphere which helped us examine ourselves. We had put together concrete plans which could make the institute gender equal in terms of both numbers and opportunities. These steps will be part of my mission at the new camps too," she said.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed last week for setting up of the campus of IIT-Madras in Zanzibar, which is a Tanzanian archipelago off the coast of East Africa.

Several IITs have been receiving requests from the Middle-East and South Asian countries to set up their campuses. IIT-Delhi is setting up a campus in UAE. IIT campuses are also in the pipeline in Egypt, Thailand, Malaysia and the UK.

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