Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series investigating the paucity of women studying STEM in Indian higher education. Also read Part Two: Busting Myths Around the “Supernumerary” Seats.
Engineering has always been thought of as the prerogative of men. With good reason, one would assume. After all, the female-to-male gender ratio across India’s most prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), was only 9% in 2017. Surely, if girls were capable, they would have claimed these thrones off their own accord.
But are Indian women really wanting in intellect to the extent where there are only 9 women for every 100 students in an IIT classroom, as opposed to the ideal of 50? If memory serves us right, many of our female peers were top-of-the-class up until Grade 10, or even 12. But, come the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), and they are nowhere to be seen.
With this as the backdrop, ‘supernumerary seats’ were introduced in the 2018-19 academic year, wherein each IIT was required to create new seats to ensure that female representation rose to at least 14% across every department. This number would be raised to 17% in 2019-20, and to at least 20% in 2020-21, after which the ratio has remained the same.
“Referring to supernumerary seats, one of our lecturers used to encourage the male class toppers by saying, ‘See girls have their quota… It’s easy for them [to do well] compared to you, so you have to work harder.’”
—Deepika, Mechanical Engineering, IIT Madras ‘19
But why do we need supernumerary seats in the first place? Is it that boys simply have a stronger inclination towards science and maths? Research says that neither are girls lacking in interest nor do they lack any ‘biological wiring’ for doing well in these fields.
Perplexed by this oddity, this article identifies the culprits behind the abominable gender ratio in India’s premier engineering universities. The question: where are the missing girls of our IITs?
The Leaky Pipeline
The leaky pipeline metaphor best describes how women are systematically pushed out of the ‘pipeline’ that takes them from schooling, through coaching and the JEE, onto engineering college. Allow us to highlight, at each step of this journey, how bright female minds are lost to gender stereotypes and biases, or the ‘leaks’ in the IIT pipeline.
Inequalities in Education
It was never an equal pie to start with. Disparities in enrolment figures between boys and girls pop up in primary school itself, and only increase through secondary school and later. What’s most disconcerting is that twice as many girls attributed dropping out of school to familial reasons as compared to boys. With 27% of girls being married off by age 18, early marriage is indeed a significant contributor amongst domestic responsibilities, concerns about safety, and the regressive belief that investing in a girl’s education ‘brings no returns’, or that ‘they might elope’ if allowed into public spaces.
So, by the time we reach the collegiate level in this pipeline towards the hallowed halls of the IITs, 12% lesser women are enrolled in colleges, as opposed to their male counterparts.
Disparity During Coaching
Coaching institutes are plagued by being inaccessible to female students. These institutes have not penetrated remote parts of the country, which means that aspiring science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (popularly abbreviated as ‘STEM’) students often find themselves having to travel far or relocate to larger cities altogether, with Kota being the most infamous option. But many parents are unwilling to have their daughters travel far, with concerns surrounding their safety; others do not see value in the mammoth costs of coaching, with stories of parents choosing to save for their sons’ future education instead of spending on their daughter’s.
“Hailing from a small town in Andhra which didn’t have great coaching institutes, I wanted to go to a bigger city for better coaching. But the gender ratios in these institutes were very low, and the hostel facilities were very bad, so my parents didn’t enrol me.”
—Prakruti, IIT Madras ‘17
Having seen toppers from towns like Panchkula, Jaipur, Satna and Udaipur in the past, we know that even remote places hold potential; the proximity of a coaching institute can make a world of difference to a girl child’s decision to prepare for engineering or not. This access barrier to quality coaching was even recognised by IITs’ Joint Admissions Board (JAB) Sub-Committee for Increasing Female Enrolment.
Even for those women who make it past parental and geographical barriers, there is a sense of low self-esteem that is cultivated in them through years of repeated assertions of their inadequacy by peers, teachers and pop culture. It leads to an imposter syndrome, where girls refrain from nominating themselves into disciplines where they believe they have no right to enter. Despite outperforming boys in math and science in school, in 2015, only 36% of girls chose to pursue maths in high school, as opposed to 55% boys.
Let’s say a girl somehow ends up joining a coaching institute for the IIT-JEE. The roadmap does not get any easier thereafter either. Owing to sheer under-representation, the environment in coaching institutes is alienating to girl students. They lose out on being a part of thriving peer groups that enable learning. It is standard practice for coaching institutes to separate the girls and boys during reading hours, stifling academic discourse between students of different genders.
The Role of the JEE and Life After It
By the time it’s time to write the Joint Entrance Examination for admission to undergraduate engineering programs, the numbers taper further. In 2018, the year supernumerary seats were introduced, only 28% of the total students who registered for the JEE were girls.
But it’s not just about the numbers. The very nature of the Joint Entrance Exam is such that it is geared towards rewarding risk-taking tendencies. For the 2022 JEE (Main), 4 marks are awarded for every question answered correctly, while 1 mark is deducted for every incorrect choice. When girls have been conditioned their entire lives to be risk-averse and thorough in everything that they do, they struggle to unlearn years of caution for competing in this setting. These tendencies are manifested in the distribution of marks scored by boys and girls in competitive exams. While girls score comparably, the distribution of their scores is less spread out, which may indicate their risk-averse tendency. In other words, the JEE exam systematically under predicts the success of females and over predicts the success of males.
But, scoring well in the JEE Mains and Advanced itself does not seem to warrant a female student a seat. In 2016, although only 848 students joined an IIT, there were another 1400 women in the same range of scores who did not end up entering an IIT. Between prejudices about which branches are “more suitable for girls” or concerns about safety and infrastructure in remotely located IITs, parents are simply unwilling to send their daughters to an IIT unless it meets their exact expectations. TA Gonsalves, the head of the JAB sub-committee, has gone on record about how girls tend to fill in lesser options than boys during the counselling (which happens after the results for JEE Advanced are declared). The nodal officer at the gender cell for IIT Delhi says that they receive frequent calls from parents enquiring whether certain branches are suitable for girls; many would rather have their daughters join a local college instead of a non-metro IIT.
Gender Stereotypes Feed the Barbie Complex
A range of seemingly invisible ‘softer’ factors nudge women away from STEM. Gendered perception of professions are ploughed in early childhood, beginning with something as basic as the kind of toys that girls are encouraged to play with. Given that sizable populations of women are yet to make their entry into the working world, young girls are bereft of role models in the STEM space, which alienates them from the field.
Research shows that women are less likely to see themselves fit for professions that are associated with a masculine culture. For instance, the representation of computer engineers as ill-groomed ‘nerds’, immersed in video games, spewing sci-fi jargon, can alter women’s belief in seeing themselves as capable of the role and fitting into this prototype.
The barriers to an IIT education go beyond alienation. Women systematically receive social rewards and punishments based on how “feminine” their interests and professional choices are; this can make the difference between them being accepted or ostracized by their female peers and older women. The “stereotype threat” thus created “threatens how students evaluate themselves” and “alters their academic identity and intellectual performance”. It is no wonder then that women, either consciously or subconsciously, falsely evaluate their own inclination towards certain subjects. Studies show that as gender stereotypes are imbued through childhood, girls’ interest shown towards STEM subjects drops. The power of such perception cannot be undermined. In one study, girls who were told that a certain test was not differentially in favour of any gender were found to perform as well as the boys. In contrast, girls who were told the test was biased underperformed.
It is less likely for women to “self-select” themselves into male-dominated fields; fewer women voluntarily enrol into courses that they are perfectly capable of excelling in because they falsely believe themselves to be under-qualified. Girls and boys start to rate themselves differently as early as the age of 10, which is reflected in the choice of subjects taken by boys and girls in Indian high schools. This perceived sense of inferiority has been dubbed the ‘Barbie complex’.
While these factors seem like abstract threats, these trends subtly (and sometimes openly) play out around us, while we continue to dismiss them as inconsequential. Most girls enrolled in an IIT can testify to being nudged towards computer science or electrical engineering, which were supposedly “good options for girls” when compared to the mechanical or civil engineering courses.
Having seen the reasoning thus far, one might be tempted to argue that there is no need to provide ‘an easy joyride for girls into engineering colleges’, and instead to focus on addressing the root cause behind the gender disparity in IITs. But what exactly do we mean by addressing the root cause? The root cause is a regressive culture at every step of the way, entrenched in centuries of tradition, nudges, and social structures. It is not merely a problem of providing more resources and opportunities.
For some perspective, consider this. The oldest IITs were set up in the 1950s and it wasn’t until mid-1960s that women started trickling into these hallowed halls, one at a time. Nearly six decades later, the gender ratio across IITs was still struggling to reach a paltry 9%. Clearly, somewhere, somehow, we have been failing some of India’s brightest minds, which is also a loss to the nation. How much longer were we prepared to wait to reach a balanced representation in our IITs organically? At current rates notwithstanding supernumerary seats, it would take us two and a half centuries before we see 50:50 representation in India’s most prestigious engineering institution.
The Missing Girls Can Be Found
While supernumerary seats may not address the root cause directly, it definitely circumvents it and more than doubles the representation of women in IITs within three years, besides triggering a chain of positive reactions along the pipeline. Relatively remote IITs and more ‘masculine’ branches will now no longer be lacking in female representation, thereby, making themselves more appealing to incoming girls. It also motivates more girl students to consider engineering as a viable option right when they are enrolling for high school. Supernumerary seats will incentivize coaching institutes to invest more resources, say, via private scholarships for female students, instead of alienating them. They will also create role models for younger girls to look up to in our society. Most importantly, by having improved the gender ratio in engineering colleges, the supernumerary seats make the environment for learning more supportive, thereby appealing to prospective female students and their parents.
Of course, this is not to say that supernumerary seats are a panacea in themselves. In fact, the JAB committee report recommends that every IIT go a step further and invest resources in reaching out to school students and to try and spark the interest of girl students in STEM. The government has also initiated several schemes in the past focused on girls’ education. Schemes like Udaan more specifically address the induction of girls into prestigious engineering institutions. If affirmative action can supplement and accelerate these efforts—perhaps even spark a reverse cascade of reactions prompting more stakeholders such as parents, teachers, schools and coaching institutes to invest in aspiring female engineers—without really taking away the seats of male counterparts, then aren’t we, as a nation, better off? It is, after all, widely accepted that diversity benefits not just the newly represented, but everyone on the team, both in the workforce and in a learning environment.
One need not claim to have magical mind-reading powers to assume several of you reading this are wondering if supernumerary seats are unfair to boys who may not have the same chances to enter a better IIT or branch as their female counterparts do, albeit with the same rank.
But what we really fail to see is the hidden disadvantages that a girl with the same rank may have had to overcome. Would she have scored ever so slightly if she went to Kota instead of a local coaching centre in her small town? If her entire classroom, mostly made up of boys, did not fall silent every time she asked a doubt mid-class, making her feel even more conscious of her identity? If she had greater confidence and belief in her dreams because the media and pop culture did not constantly signal that men made better engineers than women? After all, anyone who has attempted the JEE will tell you that confidence is as much a determiner of success as is intellectual capacity, especially when it comes to a single mark translating into a difference of even a hundred ranks.
What may look unfair to aspiring male engineers might simply be a small compensation for the systemic denial of true equality of opportunity for Indian women. The missing girls from IIT are a testament to the fact that STEM was never a level playing field to start with. Still have concerns about the supernumerary seats, or with women’s ability to excel in the field of engineering?
Still have concerns about the supernumerary seats, or with women’s ability to excel in the field of engineering?
“Our understanding of the need for affirmative action in higher educational institutions is often incomplete and rife with identity politics. When it comes to women in STEM, pernicious myths abound, with the introduction of supernumerary seats in the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). This article busts the most prevalent ones, and looks at the long-term plans for increasing women’s representation in our IITs.”
Featured image by Nainika Dechamma for The Bastion