The world has been shaken over the past year by revelations of sexual harassment in various professional spheres. Harassment was generally discussed with reference to the “sleazy” world of cinema, where the “casting couch” embodied such activity. Perhaps it was not even surprising in the world of commerce or politics, where patriarchal power is known to be exercised and corruption is almost to be expected.

However, the spectre of sexual harassment has also loomed large over the world of academia, an arena often portrayed as comprising the noble pursuit of knowledge (and renouncing of worldly pleasures) by benign, absent-minded professors with only the lofty goal of making grand discoveries or the world a better place. Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but it is true that academia is generally considered (or considers itself) to be freer of the more sordid sentiments that afflict lesser mortals.

A report in Science on April 26 about sexual harassment allegations against prominent cancer researcher Inder Verma is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg and just the most newsworthy of many similar cases around the world. Tweets, petitions, emails and blogs have been circulating in India accusing faculty at academic institutions of sexual harassment. There have simultaneously been calls for caution, that we not assume guilt until it is proven.

While not in the least diminishing the importance of the anti-sexual harassment campaign, we would argue that this is only part of a larger malaise plaguing science, particularly in India. The dominion of the “Old White Male” over various disciplines, from business to politics, has been the subject of much feminist-sociological analysis and existential angst (for the younger, the non-white, and other genders), enough to appear in many movies and novels. What is less publicised is the extent to which the Old White Males (also in India, Old Brahmin Males) dominate and influence science and academia. However, there are both similarities and differences and we believe it is important to distinguish the phenomena of ARGH (Age, Race and Gender Hierarchy) from UGH (Universal Gender Hierarchy), of which sexual harassment is an extreme case.

Three factors

First, Indian academia has been very, very “white” – read privileged. Dominated by upper castes (mostly Brahmins) for centuries, it has been strengthened by post-Independence socio-economic structures. For example, the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, established over a 100 years ago by the (Parsi) Tatas, was so Brahmin-dominated at one time that it was popularly known as the Iyer-Iyengar Institute of Science. Cultural capital, or an urban education and elite schooling, makes such institutions more accessible to students. And when one completes one’s doctoral education in these hallowed institutions, the rule of triumphant thumb is that one goes abroad for a postdoctoral fellowship to have any chance of being considered for a faculty position. Needless to say, this must be to a white country – one imagines that a postdoc from the University of Dar es Salaam is not cutting any ice. In fact, applicants with both PhDs and postdocs from Western universities (and an American accent, literally or metaphorically) have the best chance of all.

Second, gender hierarchy or patriarchy is ubiquitous in India. It pervades every aspect of our lives and is widespread in academia as well. To be fair, in this regard, academia may actually fair no worse than the rest of Indian society. As if to reproduce masculinity and femininity, some “hard” fields are still male-dominated (engineering) while other “soft” fields are female-dominated to a small degree (biology). However, this tends to decrease with increasing levels of seniority (the proportion of women drops from graduate students to faculty to senior positions of power), and is still a significant problem.

While issues surrounding gender and privilege are critical, we draw attention here to a third axis: age. Seniority based on age plays a vital role in global academia. In India, we make an art form of it. Age is a very important number. We are brought up to respect elders. Most Indian languages have different epithets for older and younger siblings, and similarly for other family. Add to this the cultural norm that we must respect, in that order, one’s mother, father, teacher and then god, and this translates beautifully into deeply entrenched academic hierarchies. This is dinned into our students from school onwards, and runs all the way through higher education to the way science itself is governed.

Age hierarchies

Unpacking the origins and mechanisms of these problems may provide a pathway to a solution. The three – age, privilege and gender – have very different modes of action. Privilege acts early in one’s career and makes opportunities for higher education available to those from particular castes and classes. Gender differences stem from patriarchal norms, and gendered prospects also differ between privileged and non-privileged groups. There are, however, social movements that address both issues, and academia will benefit eventually from processes that lead to more equitable and gender-neutral societies. Indeed, many regions of the world have made remarkable progress in this regard. Much has improved in India as well in the last couple of decades – institutions are more explicitly inclusive, and good practices are at least discussed, though there is a long way to go.

On the other hand, academic hierarchies resulting from seniority, while having roots in culture, are a particularly egregious trait that academia can claim with great ownership. And deeply does it run in the vein of Indian science. It is an accepted practice that is reinforced by institutional structures. Age in academia in India confers many privileges. More foreign trips, less administration, less teaching sometimes. And always, inordinate power over decision making. There is little chance, for example, for anyone to become the chair of a department at 40, let alone the director of an institution, while many of India’s most successful businessmen today are just that age. And in both academia and business, women’s prospects of early success are just that much duller.

Sexual harassment is now well defined enough to be treated as a binary where actions are construed by law as either harassment or not. The influence of age and privilege is, however, very insidious. The abuse of academic hierarchies occurs in one form or another in every Indian institution. There may be some notable exceptions, but this remains the norm. Most scientists have had to kowtow to a senior academic at some stage of their career, and few will have difficulty naming Old While Male / Old Brahmin Male Indian scientists who have influenced their lives directly or indirectly. Everyone decries it but it remains an amorphous beast. No doubt, it is worse for women, as gender and age-based hierarchies can have a cumulative effect.

We end by referencing two of our most famous poets. In his poem Agni kunjondru kanddaen, Subramania Bharati writes of hiding a small flame in the hollow of a tree in a forest. When the fire burns the forest down, he asks what the difference between a tiny spark and a blazing fire is. We must rid academia of age hierarchies, not simply because it benefits science but to embed values that will benefit society. Rabindranath Tagore implored us to free our minds, but in order to do that, the prisons created by our own academic institutions must crumble.

Kartik Shanker is director of ATREE, faculty at the Indian Institute of Science, and founder of Dakshin Foundation.

Siddhartha Krishnan is convener, Academy for Conservation Science and Sustainability Studies, ATREE.