IIMs must encourage academic diversity; gender diversity will follow

Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, wants to become the first IIM to create 60 additional seats exclusively for women in its flagship post-graduate programme for management. This, media reports said, will help the institute to improve its gender diversity.

Faced with criticism for their largely “male-only, engineer” classrooms, other IIMs have also been trying to encourage gender diversity by tweaking the screening process of applicants. At IIM Bangalore, for example, the proportion of girls in the 2017-19 batch was 28 per cent — the highest ever. IIM Calcutta did even better — a third of the students were girls, compared to just 16 per cent in the previous batch. Both achieved this by giving higher weightage to gender diversity in the Common Admission Test (CAT) score.

IIM Ahmedabad (IIM A) has also achieved higher gender diversity, which is evident from the 28 per cent representation of women in the 2017-19 PGP batch. It was 21 per cent in the previous year. IIM A has said, this has been achieved without giving extra weightage or holding specific quotas, but by devising a formula that does not compromise on quality.

Corporate India, which has been criticised for having very few women in their boardrooms, is familiar with this debate. But the consensus among senior women executives themselves is that while companies must identify and remove any barriers to female participation in senior roles, the concept of a quota for women directors is way beyond any sensible boundary of regulation. 

Ask the CEO of any company, even those led by women, and the response is uniform: It would lay women board members open to criticism, giving the impression that they don’t deserve to be there and are only there to make up the numbers. A corporate boardroom has no place for such a patronising approach. That may be the reason reservation for women in boardrooms is dismissed by many as a “golden skirts quota”.

Companies, of course, should do more to have more women in senior positions. In its study on women in corporate Asia, McKinsey said greater gender diversity was not a strategic priority for 70 per cent of the CEOs. Around 50 per cent of the graduates in Asia are women, but only a fraction of that number makes it to the middle management, let alone the top. On an average, women account for six per cent of the seats on corporate boards, and eight per cent on executive committees. The situation is worse in India, which features among the bottom three countries. This needs to be corrected, but women should not enter boardrooms only because of their gender. Those who do, must do so through a proven track record of having put in enough in their professional development. The same criteria are used by companies to evaluate male candidates.

Coming back to IIMs, instead of forcing gender diversity, these institutes should focus more on academic diversity, that is, having more non-engineering students. It is true that the IIMs have remained a bastion of engineering graduates for long, and that needs to change. As most engineering colleges have more male students than female, the number of women getting admission in IIMs is less. This is apparent from the total number of applicants appearing for the CAT exam — 70 per cent are men and 30 per cent are women.

More women will be encouraged to apply only if the CAT exam pattern is not biased towards quantitative skills, giving an unfair advantage to engineers. The questions should be framed in a manner that they create a level field for students of all streams, including humanities and commerce. Some IIMs have started doing that, as a result of which the number of students with non-engineering backgrounds has been rising steadily. For example, the IIM-A batch for 2017-19 saw the share rise from 20 per cent a year earlier to 32 per cent. That automatically leads to better gender diversity.