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Combating the bias: More seats at IITs can help fight gender imbalance

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Women in IITs

Women represent 28% of the country’s 40 lakh engineering graduates but the IITs, a traditional male bastion, have been a tough nut to crack. (Saumya Khandelwal/ HT File Photo)

Alarmed by the decline in women’s number in IITs, the admission board of the institutes recently approved a hike in the number of seats for female students from 8% to 20% till 2019.

The 23 IITs in the country will create supernumerary seats for girls and have been asked to ensure adequate hostel facilities for them.

The move came after a panel constituted by the Joint Admission Board (JAB), ministry of HRD, filed a report painting a grim picture about the biases that women continue to face in India.

India is not the only country which is facing this problem. In the US, the number of women opting for STEM (science, technology, engineering and Math) in grad schools has halved over three decades and while women make up more than 51% of the workforce, they hold 26% of computing-related jobs, shows US Department of Labour data.

Despite proving their mettle in academics and other avenues, including administrative and medical exams, women are not a favoured lot when it comes to specialised and higher studies, especially engineering.

Engineering as a profession has been emasculated in the popular imagination. If it’s an engineer, it has to be a man. Though more and more women are making their presence felt—they represent 28% of the country’s 40 lakh engineering graduates—the IITs, a traditional male bastion, has been a tough nut to crack.

Of 10,500 undergraduate students who took admission to the 23 IITs in the country last year, only 840 (8%) were women, compared to a little over 1,000 (close to 10%) in 2015, shows data from the JAB that conducts the Joint Entrance Examination (Advanced).

No woman has made it to the top 100 ranks and Riya Singh of Kota, who secured an All India Rank of 133, topper among 4,570 qualified women candidates, is the closest any woman has come.

While JEE (Main) is relatively easy to clear, most aspirants feel the necessity for coaching for the Advanced exam. And it is here that the bias against women begins.

The panel constituted by the admission board notes this in its report. “Due to societal preferences and biases in India, by and large it is the sons who are sent for coaching rather than equally talented daughters.”
Pramod Maheshwari, director of Career Point, a coaching institute in Kota, says very few women opt for the engineering compared to men. His institutes merely have 20% women.
“Holding traditional, paternalistic views, parents may believe that they are acting in the best interests of the girls, that they are protecting them from a hostile society, that they are preparing them for a suitable feminine role in life,” the report says.

“There are overt and subtle biases in society against female students opting for engineering careers. These start with parents and close family who may hold traditional views on gender. Many parents still believe that engineering requires brute strength.

“In schools, many teachers have orthodox views on career options for boys and girls. Hence, they advise and steer girls towards ‘feminine’ career choices rather than the ‘masculine’ engineering. Likewise, textbooks often cast girls/women in ‘feminine’ roles,” it notes.

Parents concur with the findings of the report. “IITs are not easy to crack. Apart from hard work, good coaching is a must,” says Sadhana Singh, a resident of Bhagalpur, Bihar who has decided not to send her daughter for coaching out of the state. “There aren’t many good coaching institutes here and we don’t feel comfortable sending our daughter to a new place where she will have to stay alone.”

Besides safety issues, she observed that several students fall prey to depression while staying alone.

The issue of high suicides among trainees, especially in Kota, has been a cause of concern, for parents and the government.

Singh, however, feels that more seats will definitely help more women get admission into IITs.

Shivali Goyal, who studied in IIT Delhi and is against the increase, however, says the move would benefit girls from under-privileged background where parents think twice before spending on coaching.

Welcoming the decision, a former IIT director, who did not wish to be named, said it would make IITs more attractive to women.

“Given the very low number of women in IIT BTechs, schoolgirls who aspire to do engineering tend to opt for NITs and other engineering colleges in preference to IITs. The very low admission rate of females in IIT BTech discourages young schoolgirls from trying for IIT,” he said. “The moment the percentage of women in a few IITs increase, all IITs will be seen as more attractive to women and their percentages will also improve,” he said.

However, the professor warned against a one-size-fits-all approach.

“There are a few IITs that have higher female ratios and hence, may not have to implement the proposal fully. At the same time, the constraints in terms of hostel space, classroom and lab space will also differ for each IIT,” he said, stressing that implementation is the key.


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