Preeti Aghalayam is the first woman director of an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
It took seven decades since the establishment of the first IIT in Kharagpur in 1951 for a woman to be appointed as the head of this prestigious institute.
However, for Aghalayam, the director-in-charge of the new IIT in Zanzibar, it is not only about breaking the glass ceiling but also about embodying the "once an IITian, always an IITian" philosophy, as revealed to PTI.
IIT Madras, founded in 1959, has become the first IIT in India to launch an international campus in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The new institute is scheduled to commence its first academic session in October this year.
“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 an IITian, always an IITian’ for me,“ she said.
“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,” Aghalayam said.
“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 student and faculty [level]. 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.
Over the years, engineering colleges in India have made significant strides in reducing the gender gap.
For the 2022-23 academic session, a total of 3,310 women, accounting for 20 per cent of the available seats, have confirmed their admissions across all 23 IITs.
Aghalayam said that during their visits to Zanzibar as part of the IIT Madras contingent, they noticed a significant representation of women on the Zanzibar side. Therefore, it was important for them to be mindful of gender balance on their own campus.
Aghalayam obtained her Bachelor's degree (BTech) in Chemical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1995 and completed her PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2000.
She worked as a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, Cambridge, and as a faculty member at IIT Bombay.
Joining IIT Madras in 2010, Aghalayam is currently Professor in the Chemical Engineering department. She was recently honoured as one of the 75 Women in STEM by the Principal Scientific Adviser’s office.
Aghalayam has served as the nodal officer for the Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions (GATI) programme at IIT Madras.
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