Indian PhD maternity edict ‘welcome’ but barriers to women remain

University Grants Commission says doctoral students on fellowships should get eight months’ maternity leave

January 11, 2022
newborn baby holding the parent hand while sleeping at cradle
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Academics have praised a mandate that requires Indian universities to allow female PhD students eight months’ maternity leave but warned that significant barriers still prevent many women on the subcontinent from pursuing doctoral education.

The edict from the University Grants Commission stating that new mothers should be allowed 240 days away from their PhD goes beyond India’s legal minimum of 182 days – six months – maternity leave.

Students on leave will still be eligible to receive funding under the terms of their fellowship. However, the total length or value of the fellowship will not be extended, leading Mary John, who recently retired from her post as professor and acting director at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, a New Delhi-based research institute, to warn that while the longer leave period was “welcome”, care should be taken to ensure that it did not simply delay the disadvantages faced by academic mothers.

“It would be important to check further how such leave would affect students who are availing [themselves] of fellowships,” Professor John said.

Eldho Mathews, a deputy adviser in the Unit for International Cooperation at New Delhi’s National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, argued that extending maternity leave had the potential for “long-term impact” and might “help to sensitise institutions” to the needs of mothers.

However, women are still much less likely than men to pursue a doctoral degree in the first place – with persistent cultural barriers holding many back, he noted.

“In the Indian social system, females going to PhD level is a big thing – if the PhD programme necessitates that you study [for] four to five years, what happens is that parents generally discourage female students [from] a PhD,” Mr Mathews said.

In more conservative families especially, women are encouraged to marry and have children. For women who make it into doctoral programmes, those who take a break during their studies often wind up leaving permanently.

Mr Mathews argued that universities needed to put more resources into retaining students at risk of quitting their studies and “also be encouraged to promote practices focused on various outreach efforts to re-enrol dropped-out students”.

He said that campuses should be better equipped to cater to expecting mothers. “Institutions should also be encouraged to provide necessary physical infrastructure required for pregnant students: especially comfortable hostel facilities and furniture [in] class and hostels that ensure adequate space,” he said.

India is home to the second largest higher education system in the world and roughly 10 per cent of its 36 million students pursue a PhD, according to research by N. V. Varghese, vice-chancellor of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration. But at the highest level of education men far outnumber women, with nearly 93,000 enrolled in doctoral programmes compared with roughly 69,000 women in 2018.

“The new regulations to enhance maternity leave [are] a welcome step and it can have only a positive impact on female participation in research,” Professor Varghese said.

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