Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A DIFFERENT QUESTION

Much is being written about the underrepresentation of women in the IITs, and Nanopolitan has done some quite gruelling analysis of the whole matter. However, the original question was related to judging the caliber of the JEE and whether it has any inherent bias against women. However, the lack of women in the IITs can at least in theory be explained by several factors not related to the JEE, and one of those factors certainly could be the "culture" in the IITs.

So the question is, is the culture in IIT such that it may be biased against women? While such a question is surely bound to raise some hackles, let me hasten and add that an affirmative answer to this question would not reflect negatively on any particular gender. The point is, there are many institutions and fields which have been male dominated, and while that says something critical about the institution, it does not necessarily say anything bad about the individuals comprising it.

Questions whose answers may involve any accusation of bias for or against a particular gender are always considered uncomfortable. But I ask this question only because I am familiar with another hotly-debated topic; the underrepresentation of women in science. When this topic is brought up, we are inevitably reminded of Lawrence Summers's unfortunate comments that sparked a storm. But sometime back, I had written a post about a Nature article in which the author talked about the fierce "alpha male" culture that exists in science, that has made science traditionally a man's game. There was no accusation in that article, and yet I agreed with its premises. Science has been a man's game, there can be a lot of vituperative criticism and aggressiveness inherent in scientific competition and meetings. Essentially because of historical circumstances, women unfortunately have been dissuaded from a lot of scientific research.

Sometimes, observation trumps a lot of hypothesizing, and one thing I have to say is that for some reason, I have seldom seen even very intelligent girls trying to diligently get through the JEE. Exceptions abound of course, but within my acquaintances, I can think of very few girls who were first in their class (or in the city, state etc.), had the mettle to beat the male competition and get into the best engineering colleges in the country, but did not even appear for the JEE. So irrespective of the reasons, I think that there is something that keeps a lot of girls away from the JEE. One simple factor which comes to mind, and this is in fact true for boys too, is that parents sometimes balk at the thought of sending their son or daughter away to a far away place like Kanpur or Kharagpur. Another factor, and this is something a friend of mine told me, is that with predominantly boys appearing for the JEE, it is difficult for girls to form a study group.

Anyway, this is my take on it. But the men and women of the IITs can enlighten things more for me. I definitely think that traditionally, the IITs have always been perceived as a man's game, quite apart from whether that perception makes sense or is true, and this in its various implications and manifestations has kept girls way from the IITs, and consequently from the JEE. Things may change in the future, and they emphatically should.

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12 Comments:

Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

The answer to the culture question is an emphatic No. Infact if I can be so audacious as to generalize my personal experience, I would say that the ``culture'' at IIT is very welcoming of women. Most of the women students in IIT are given red-carpet treatment by their male colleagues. Think about it, here are a bunch of 18 year old single males in the formative years of their lives, how on earth can they be against the presence of more women on campus. Plus, an IIT campus is one of the safest and most pleasant campuses in India. If anything, the culture may be ``erring'' on the other extreme.

4:27 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Interesting insight...would you say however, if there is a chance that girls don't perceive it that way because they (or their parents) are just not aware of the true situation? Specifically, I also want to ask the following; is it possible that girls have the wrong perception of guys in IIT looking at them like they were exotic creatures? (not that its completely different elsewhere, but because of the presence of other girls, may not be felt as much)
Because the state of affairs naturally depends as much on perception as on reality.

6:53 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

I think the girls in IIT really have the best of both worlds. Not only they are in India's premier institutions, they are also pretty much the centre of attraction in a society that is 90% male. By most accounts, they revel in it (who wouldn't?). In fact, most of the girls in my batch found their life partners among their student colleagues. It is really a win-win situation for girls and merely win for most of the guys:). There could be a lot of reasons for under representation of women in IIT (or engineering in general) but culture or lack of 'incentives' is certainly not one of them.

7:18 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

It's encouraging to know that. Just one question; curious to know how many girls graduated from IIT in your batch. Also, what do you personally think could be an important reason for underrepresentation of girls in IIT compared to other engineering colleges?

7:32 PM  
Blogger Abi said...

Offered with no comments: ToI report.

Well, maybe just one comment: Since it comes from ToI, it's a good idea to take its content with loads of salt!

More seriously, as you rightly pointed out, it's important to get the views from women who went to (or, are in) IITs. Their voices are yet to be heard in the current ongoing discussion.

10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...

I have spoken to a few girls at IIT Kanpur and they have confessed to feeling intimidated and threatened -- and not flattered -- by all the attention males give them so I am not sure Vivek's hypothesis is correct. The situation might be different in Delhi and Bombay since the two sexes are more comfortable with each other in those cities (given that a lot of students in each IIT are from in and around the city where the IIT is based).

9:30 PM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...

By few girls, I meant only four or five and while one can't draw any conclusions based on that small a number, one must remember -- that's 20% of the girls in IITK. Also, if I were a girl, I would feel irritated and threatened by all the attention -- some of it vulgar -- given to me.

9:38 PM  
Blogger i am an iceberg.. said...

i appeared for my jee this time and its nice to go through your discussion abt this issue.
well there are loads of reasons behind why girls cant make it to the iits through jee.. i tell you from my personal experience, the girls from metro cities definitely have very high probability of getting selected to the iits. i am from city like nashik which has only one girl selected through jee so far in the entire history that too in defence quota , though nashik is very near to mumbai..
anyways its only one of the reason..and there r many many more things..

7:39 AM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

I can not put by fingre on the exact number but my optimistic estimate will be around 40 girls out of 400 odd students. I agree to some extent with the initimidation factor in Anirudh's comment, however I think 'threatened' is probably an exaggeration. As far as I know there has not been a single incident in IIT where a woman's physical well-being has been compromised. The IIT system is very protective of its students and the harmless starry eyed affection of some of the romantic souls among IITians rarely takes any sinister forms. Intimidation or no intimidation, I think most IIT graduates (in both sexes) will agree that on balance IIT days were one of the most memorable of their lives.

With regard to reason of under representation of women in IIT, I really have not thought about the issue enough to be able to venture an educated opinion. However, it is a fact that women are grossly under represented in the top echelons of science and engineering the world over and not just in IIT. So, I think there is hardly anything out of the ordinary about JEE or IIT. Also, it is a fact that women are a minority in most professions where belonging to a particular sex does not confer any `special advantage'.
We should keep in mind that treating women as equals in society and law is a relatively recent phenomenon (and still incomplete). Cultural stereotypes built over centuries are not in the habit of whithering away in a hurry. May be we are in a transient phase where barriers (of all sort and form) are still in the process of breaking away. May be we should just wait and watch before the world gives way to the true parity among both sexes.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Abi, thanks for the link...as you said, it's necessary to hear the perspective of women who went to IIT

Vivek and Anirudh: I partially agree with both your views. While I am sure IIT is in fact a pretty safe place, I am not sure whether it is always perceived as that by the parents of prospective female students, especially the non Mumbai/Chennai IITs. Also, girls could really be bothered by the fact that they may be the object of stares and scrutiny, even if it is starry-eyed.
Vivek, you are right, the IITs are no different with respect to underrepresentation of women than the upper echelons of science and engineering. But one of the reasons that has been offered for this state of affairs in science is the aggressive nature of scientific competition. So the question naturally arises, does anything of this sort exist in the IITs? Again, my personal thoughts are that nothing of this sort exists, but perhaps it is perceived that way. And whatever the facts are, the perceptions certainly need to change.
Again, the best perspectives would come from girls who went to the IITs

10:45 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Iceberg: This seems reasonable, but in reality, do even the metropolitan girls regularly appear for the JEE? And if not, the question persists. If they appear and don't get through, then a completely different set of questions manifests itself.

10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anirudh said...

In IITK, the ratio is lower -- twenty five girls in a batch of a little over five hundred students. Also, there was a vulgar incident here a year back. No physical assault but there were many complaints and discussions. I'll find the student newsgroup or magazine report and put it up here.

10:12 PM  

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