IITs need more women: Separate merit lists can fix gender imbalance, introduce girls to engineering disciplines

By Taruni Kumar

Spiderman, Superman, a beautiful IIT girl and an ugly IIT girl are standing in the four corners of a room. In the middle of the room, there's a table with a large diamond placed on top. All four want the diamond. Which one gets it?
The ugly IIT girl, of course. The other three are imaginary.

This misogynistic "joke" reflects a standard complaint among the male students of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT). That there are no "hot girls" in IIT and that the poor boys have no "eye candy". While attempting to set aside the incredibly sexist (and infuriating) suggestion that women in IIT are there only for the men to have something pleasant to look at, the small number of female students in the institution is a definite problem.

In 2016, only 850 of the 4,600 women who qualified for the entrance exam joined the IITs. In 2014, only 8.8 percent of all the students in IITs were women. This increased to 9 percent in 2015, but sank again to 8 percent in 2016.

Representational image. Courtesy: News18

Representational image. Courtesy: News18

It has been enough of a problem for long enough that in April 2017, the Joint Admission Board (JAB) of the IITs decided to increase the number of women that would be admitted and also increase the quota of women every year — till the goal of having 20 percent women on IIT campuses by 2020 was achieved. The quota is meant to be phased out by 2026.

In 2018, the Human Resource Development ministry directed the IITs to prepare separate merit lists for girls to make sure that the number of girls on campus is 14 percent. More women in the top engineering colleges of the country? Good, right? Well, not everyone seems to think so.

According to The Times of India, "Many (presumably, IIT) officials felt that the second girls-only merit list — to take their representation to 14 percent — may mean less meritorious students gaining admission at the expense of boys who have done better."

The report quoted an IIT teacher who said, "This will also put more pressure on IITs, who will now have to arrange for more bridge-course or remedial classes for students getting through to IITs just because we want a pre-determined percentage of girls on the campus."

The words "just because" in that quote feels most irksome. Those two words alone make it seem as if the entire endeavour to admit more girls into the country's top engineering institution is less important than the administrative difficulties the attempt may cause. One wonders which is more important to India's top educational institutions: The pressure of the expectations that they will work towards actual systemic social change or the pressure of remedial classes.

And to set the teacher's mind at ease, it makes sense to mention here that the women candidates who will take up seats under the quota need to have qualified the JEE (Advanced) or the Joint Engineering Entrance (Advanced) as well as be in the top 20 percentile in their respective board examinations. So yes, the women who join the IITs would be doing so on merit.

In 2017, after the JAB decided to set aside a proportion of supernumerary seats for women applicants, The News Minute spoke to Timothy Gonsalves, director of IIT Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, and chair of the panel that proposed the quota. The term "supernumerary" means over and above the original intake, which means the organisations would require more facilities. But it's also not as if the IITs had not planned to increase their intake over the years. The institutions are essentially sticking to their decision to admit more students but are also taking the step to ensure that more of them are women.

"We have been planning to increase our overall intake by 75,000 to 1 lakh by 2020. Institutes have already undertaken construction of hostel campuses and labs accordingly. This is also why we are implementing the quota from 2018, so that we are prepared with the resources needed for almost 600 more women across IITs," Gonsalves said.

But there's another type of criticism emerging from the move. Here's a sample from Twitter:

This criticism follows the age-old assumption that "merit" in itself is absolute. It does not take into account the various socio-economic factors that can undermine merit. For example, in the simplest sense, a student who could not afford the kind of schooling or coaching that another could has less likelihood of clearing the JEE. So, what is merit then? Simply the kind of marks one can get? Or is it judging the potential of a student? The "merit" criticism completely misses the point of societal restraints and years of reinforcement that act as barriers to women, and not just in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), but in other educational pursuits as well. Here's a simple explanation of the phenomenon by the comic strip Sanitary Panels:

Women in India are often given less priority than their male counterparts when it comes to education. The "badi hoke ghar hi toh chalana hai" line of thought gets in the way of them being taken seriously outside of the prospective bahu or "good beti" space. And since women are considered to be "naturally creative", they're taken even less seriously in the natural sciences. Add to this the fact that in India every parent wants their male child to grow up to be an engineer and you have an all-out war to clear the JEE.

In this situation, most students end up spending time and money on coaching classes beyond regular schooling with the sole purpose of clearing the entrance examination.

As an official from the HRD ministry noted, "Girls aren't encouraged to have extra coaching and that is one of the reasons why even those who are interested could not qualify."

Quartz spoke to women who graduated from the IITs in the 1990s. One woman said her all-girls school didn't even offer mathematics as a subject and she had to study it elsewhere to clear her entrance exams.

Even the movement of girls is restricted by family and security concerns, and most IITs are residential colleges. Girls from cities, small towns or villages far from the closest campus (or the campus they get admission to) may not be able to attend because of familial objections.

In a 2017 research paper, the choices of 4,000 students attending Delhi University colleges were noted. It was observed that women are willing to attend a college that happens to be 13.04 percentage points lower in quality than one that they are eligible for if they feel that the commute will be safer even by a single unit. So women are essentially choosing lower ranked colleges based on what travel route is safest.

A consideration as complex as this doesn't make its way to the simplistic "merit" argument, or worse, the assumption that women top their boards because they're rattu totas as stated by a particularly enlightened Twitter user.

And please, dear men, let's not assume that just because a woman gets into IIT, her life suddenly becomes infinitely easier. The woman interviewed by Quartz spoke about how the burden of child-rearing automatically falls on the woman, how women professionals in India have very few options for hired childcare help and how companies in the country aren't as supportive of these issues. They also talked about how women in the corporate world get paid a lot less than their male counterparts.

All arguments that have been heard time and again, and yet seem to be forgotten when concerns like "extra remedial classes" suddenly crop up.

But not just in their careers, these women also spoke of the challenges they faced while they were students at the institution. Parul Mittal, an electrical engineering student from the class of 1995 at IIT Delhi, said, "There was no same-sex company to discuss your college life with and it was not a friendly scenario, because there were very few friendships between boys and girls. If I did not understand something in class, there was nobody I could ask for help. In a way, we girls had to work much harder than the boys."

So, boys of IIT, instead of looking for "hot girls" in your classes, how about befriending your female classmates and treating them like equal human beings who happen to be there to study alongside you? Too much to ask?

Now, a perfectly balanced and equal society is what we would all want, right? Or at least claim to want as long as there are no major policy changes that could even remotely upset the balance that currently rests in favour of men. Because if all of us did indeed want this ideal society, we would all be in favour of affirmative action for women. To combat the situations and factors that hold women down and out of the STEM fields, there needs to be a bigger push than assuming systemic imbalances will somehow sort themselves out given adequate time.

And to all the boys who are afraid that "less meritorious" girls will take their seats in IITs across the country, go back to the word supernumerary. It means that the institutions will not reduce the intake from the prior year, so no girls are using their "woman card" to steal your potential seat. The admission of girls according to the merit list will be above and beyond this number, therefore, male aspirants, you should just keep calm and JEE on.

The Ladies Finger (TLF) is a leading online women's magazine

Published Date: Jan 17, 2018 16:33 PM | Updated Date: Jan 17, 2018 16:33 PM

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