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?

Illustration by Nainika Dechamma for The Bastion

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.

Images from coaching centres’ websites are the first sign of a gender-biased IIT-JEE pipeline. (L) Creative Academy, Pune; (R) Allen Coaching, Kota

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 engineerswithout 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?

Read Part Two: Where are the Missing Girls of our IITs? Busting Myths Around the “Supernumerary” Seats

“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

Gayathri is a 5th-year student of Engineering Physics and Data Science at IIT Madras. She is drawn to women’s issues and conversations about tech and society. When she isn’t doing what engineers do (which remains a mystery to date), she can be found dabbling in writing, painting and slam poetry.

25 COMMENTS

  1. This article provides all the reasons for the skewed gender ratio in IITs and explains them very well. Once a JEE aspirant, I too faced many setbacks because of my gender. Coming from a family of doctors (and being a girl) all my relatives, school teachers and even few friends believed that I’d take up medicine inspite of me being clear about becoming an engineer from 6th grade.
    In my coaching institute two of my friends (girls) and I were forcibly pushed to the NEET batch despite enrolling for JEE coaching because the teachers felt we’d been performing well in biology and wanted to make us NEET rankers. So we spent one year studying biology instead of JEE math and only in 12th when we threatened to leave the institute, did they start JEE classes for us.
    The JEE batch consisted of only about 3-4 girls as opposed to 30 boys. There were three columns of benches of which two were occupied by the boys and the other entire column was left free only for the four of us. We always felt strange and alienated, during group discussions we were left out.
    Some of my friends who earlier dreamt of joining IITs or IIST (to work at ISRO in future) gave up even before trying because of societal pressure and went for medicine.
    My parents always discouraged me from taking mechanical engineering although I was passionate about it. My best friend who badly wanted to get into IIT Guwahati was discouraged by her parents as they were unwilling to send her that far. As for me, I finally joined computer science engineering at BITS Goa (although I could’ve gotten Pilani, my parents were not willing to send me to North India).
    There are many hurdles in each stage in a girl’s education process which collectively contribute to lesser representation of girls in IITs.

    • If you don’t speak up you will be left out in the discussions. I don’t see boys complaining that in the NEET classroom there are far more girls and we couldn’t speak out our problem.
      They Do na. If they can do where there a large number of girls in the classroom.
      Considering Allen(Medical) I have seen my friends sitting in a classroom of only 10 boys. Didn’t they get intimidated by the presence of girls or didn’t they find it difficult to speak out.
      They Did na..
      You all just speak that every possible problem of the world are in a Girls life and boys are just in a easy go.
      We all talk about the problem girls face in engineering which was never there it was just an individual choice.
      Every problem just freaking vanishes when she choose to opt for medical science whether it be societal, financial, or cultural.
      Nobody speaks about this.

      • Oh wow. Girls are socialized to be meek and not to make their presence known. Boys are socialized to be vocal, naughty, and dominating. If you don’t know know how socialisation works, just shut up.

        • Isn’t that everything feminism and feminazis teaching girls to become and shaming boys if they do that,
          The modern day feminist want their girls to be competitive, dominant, overpower men , be rigorous , be vocal , naughty, don’t listen to men, stop men from reaching top position, shame them on body image and when a man does that everything a modern day feminist wants to do it just becomes toxic masculinity.
          You want your girls to become more masculine, defeat the males, speak up but wants men not to speak up, cry in corner, be too emotional, not be competitive, not to dominate
          You little feminist don’t realise that feminism change when upper class women changes their wants and needs, the upper class women wants to use feminism to change the very nature of being a men and women and change it to a way so that it benefits them.
          You all want your girls to gain the basic masculine traits and qualities that masculinity offers but shame the men for just having it

    • No one is ever gonna understand so it’s better we don’t waste time and energy explaining the injustice done to us because they’re never gonna understand. They think that whatever we face and confronting and speaking up about that as an excuse to hide our incapability ,victim card, gaining sympathy and BS.Infact its their excuse to not accept their privelege and the huge difference in our upbringing, point of start towards success and many more things discussing which will have no point. They can never step in our shoes and they never will.Each day of our lives we’re made realise that we are girls .They’re are so many things I want to say but again and again I realise its of no use. No one can change their minds ever.

  2. You’re just spilling out brutal honesty over here. Never loved any article more!
    sooo true!!
    Parents too go all, any girl won’t be able to survive out on her own, but at the same time behave as if their son is just made to achieve success one day, no matter the level of the struggle !
    Not neglecting, the so called “primary jobs AND THE TAUNTS ” for any gender, when it comes to academics and failing.

    • What about the medical sector and girls who opt for PCB and PCMB…
      Every difficulties cancels out there..
      Girls in Kota are far greater in number then boys in Medical Sector and Almost 66% of the candidates in Medical Science is Girls..
      Why Don’t we equate that to 50/50 first by providing reservation and super-numerary seats to boys as it would be easier to achieve.

  3. Oh my god, I’m from a humanities background but this question has always bugged me, great arguments and very well written. ✨

  4. Idiots just can understand that equality of opportunities never guarantee the equality of outcomes.
    Just look out the data from Scandinavian countries.
    At the end of the day reservation and
    super-numerary are just examples of sexism where genders are choosen over real talent and skills.

    • Small compensation… You are just taking away the child hardwork and efforts which he made for getting a seat in CSE.
      cuz guess what a female scoring 500 rank can get a seat in cse (IIT bombay) but a male scoring upto 300 rank can’t even think about that luxury.
      Keep your shit aside and fight in the general category for a seat and Prove yourself cuz just because she is a girl that doesn’t means that she deserves reservation.
      You have to struggle like how a middle class boy does.
      I have never heard feminist coming up taking about the medical sector where there is less number of boys I mean only 36%…
      They don’t want 50/50 there..
      You wanna break glass ceiling but what about the glass basement

      • And just to add a point all the above factors like safety, early marriage, parents stressing about their girl child financial situation etc. didn’t stop the female population to surpass male population in Medical Science which is also a branch of “STEM”.
        I totally agree the less number of female in ” IIT” but I can’t total ignore the fact that there are less number of males in Medical Science. Why don’t we first equate that cuz the male population isn’t too low and it will just take 50 years to equate that so yes declared from now there are reservation and super-numerary seats for males in MBBS when we will achieve that then we can look after the engineering department.
        Seeing a class where 75% female in medical didn’t affected the male child,
        And Can we just all look at the large number of population of female in Kota where medical science is taught and in other schools.. And Institutes.
        That’s why we ask you to speak from facts and reality and try to look into both the perspective and not in just one
        guess what the sexism in “IIT ” the author of the post may have got a rank that wasn’t decent enough for the specific branch that she has achieved but Thanks to the super-numerary seat. A boy just a rank above her just couldn’t even think about that.
        Your Welcome 🎉.
        It’s all about the mentality.
        Face the situation, be efficient.
        Don’t Cry, fight and prove yourself cuz if a son of a labour who studied well on his own and got into IIT without any reservation then a daughter of labour can do the same thing she doesn’t need your reservation or super-numerary seats..

        • A girl, when she opts for PCB or PCMB, decides that for herself in India, right?
          Medical sector is not even included here man..
          The basic question was just >>> where does all those “engineering” girls go after 12th?

          PS: obviously, not in the medical field!

        • I don’t think you understand what the article is trying to state. What it’s talking about is the gender ratio in the ‘engineering’ colleges and not the medical. Who the hell started the conversation about ‘medical’? Of course, nobody is downplaying the sex ratio in the medical industry, but that will be discussed too.
          There are many more problems in case of a female compared to a male in the society. This is just one such problem.
          It’s like while females talking about all the rapes happening in India, the males are talking about the emotional trama they are facing. That is not the point. And dont remove the focus from the matter being discussed.

          • First of all that not a problem that girls are not in engineering fields.
            When will you understand thats a fuckin choice.
            They are lot of boys in engineering but they are fewer number of boys in medical science so does that becomes a problem that boys are less in Medical.
            It’s a No na. I guess.
            So Why is it a problem if most of the girls choose medical science and a fewer number choose engineering.
            Or I think you all are assuming that medical science is easy and that’s why there are more number of girls. That’s not the case it’s soo hard to kill that brutal competition and get a seat into AIIMS as it is in IIT ”
            But nobody talks about that shit.
            Girls face a lot of problem while engineering like safety, Institute far away, financial, societal but when she wants to choose Medical , every problem just vanishes. They suddenly become shielded to all those problem.
            Why just can’t these idiots understand its just a individual choice to choose Medical or IIT whether it be a girl or a boy.
            Like take a Example.
            Stuti Kandwala we all know her na
            She cracked AIIMS, JIPMER, MIT, JEE (Mains) and all that but does it proves that she is a extraordinary, god gifted girl no na.
            She is just a ordinary girl like every ordinary girl or boy she just choose to crack and learn and do hardwork to qualify all that exams.
            She could have been just limited to JEE but she choose to crack each and every exam..
            It’s just a matter of choice and nothing else.
            If a girl feels that she could crack both engineering and medical then choose it and go for it na.
            Why do you want reservation of the basis of just being a girl.
            It’s just fuckin so simple

        • Oh wow. You probably are from an upper middle class background and definitely a guy conveniently using ‘son of Labour’ to support your argument about no reservation for girls. Tom you will also go against the very same son of labour and say no reservation for him under EWS or SC/ST/OBC because you with all your privilege and handholding will wilfully ignore that you got a better education and capital then they ever did. Just fo.

          • Just Listen “Female Tom”
            I am a OBC Category
            Parental Income – GDP OF INDIA( PER CAPITA) enough to afford basic education and a Institute fees and the most important factor my willingness and hardwork. If you are not financial stable that’s a point to judge ok AND TAKE RESERVATION OK NOT GENDER OR CASTE
            In other countries there no reservation based to gender specially based on education its never done ok.
            Those girls get what they choose and what their hardwork gives them a result.
            And talking about me. “”*Never*”” there has been a single time when I used my reservation which was no use to .
            ALWAYS CHOOSE BEING GENERAL .
            Wasn’t able to crack NTSE cuz I didn’t do the Hardwork as it was required for being general I mean just a few marks for stage 2.
            Was if I used my OBC as a concession for my hardwork would have easily done it so
            Cracked jee mains and advance but was not satisfied with the rank or branch so took a drop . Had I choose OBC just because I was born in OBC I could be in IIT delhi and could have at least got mechanical so don’t talk shit and fo ok.
            Just because I was born in OBC or a certain gender doesn’t defines what I want ok.
            Just because I was born in OBC it doesn’t means I deserve that reservation which some below the poverty line student should get ok. Even Amit Shah is a OBC so does his son or daughter needs a OBC card to play no na .
            Just because you were born in OBC or in a certain gender doesn’t make you privileged enough to take benefit of that even though you know you can do it on your own.
            It’s just matter of choice.
            You girls want reservation in IIT so give boys reservation in medical cuz they are less there. Your very every problem vanish when you all choose medical where you all are just in more in number than boys.
            You girls just want to dominate the other gender and just want power.
            You wanna break corporate glass ceilings but don’t wanna break labor glass basements cuz guess what that’s a man’s job to do.
            You girls don’t realise that you are still on that mushy, cushion layer in society when men and women have build for you.
            It’s true that there are many men at the top of Hierarchy but it’s also true that there are only men at the bottom.
            It’s just a matter of choice.
            “”Kindly fo with that Btch””

  5. Whoever wrote this article should publish this in all newspapers, in all 22 Scheduled languages and post it on Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram etc.

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