An annoyingly common, rather stale joke about IITs in particular and engineering colleges across India at large is that the female student population in these educational institutions is so low that many “eligible bachelors” are rendered bereft of female love interests. Even if one manages to somehow overlook the dreadfully testosterone-ridden, heterocentric and androcentric nature of the joke, it points to a problem of much greater implications – why do we have relatively much fewer young women pursuing engineering courses? And why are they invisible in the wider spectrum of our imagination of engineering professionals?
With the announcement of the 2017 JEE Advanced results earlier this June, newspapers, TV media, as well as social media, were all flooded with the names and photographs of the numerous students who had performed remarkably well and had emerged among the highest ranked. While the brilliant performances of some students impressed me to no end, I could not help but scrounge for a glimpse of a girl my age in the pictures published, be it print media or electronic media. I was left disappointed. While many articles and special features applauded students hailing from economically weaker backgrounds, the foremost among them being Anand Kumar’s “Super 30” students, I still couldn’t come across any such articles which talked of these boys’ young female counterparts. It was shocking at best.
While the number of women students in engineering institutions across India has increased tremendously over the past two decades, the great disparity among the number male and female students enrolled continues to be an issue of concern. Across Delhi, the premier co-ed engineering colleges including IIT-Delhi, Delhi Technological University (DTU), Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology (NSIT) as well as Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University (GGSIPU), have approximately 15 to 20 girls in a class of 100 students, which is an alarming ratio.
While a general lack of interest could, superficially, be accounted for as the reason behind this great disparity, the roots run much deeper here. Dr Seema Singh and Teena Chaurdhary, of the Dept of Humanities, DTU, attribute this disparity to a multitude of reasons. These include differential socialisation processes which lead to young aspirant women engineers having much lower self-confidence than their male counterparts despite being equally proficient in terms of intellect and practical application. At the early stages of schooling and within the family, young girls are explicitly or implicitly made to feel inferior to their male classmates, misled by the grossly unfair notion of men ‘naturally’ being better in all fields of scientific application than women. This leaves lasting impacts on the psyches of both. With engineering existing as a highly competitive field of education and profession, a student who is already established as incapable or inferior in their own mind is bound to lag off in some way. Another important factor is how expected social roles and societal pressure contribute immensely to women’s careers of choice, discouraging them from advancing on paths that ultimately lead them in an industry where they have to work twice as hard to prove their capabilities, and which prove to be time-consuming and emotionally taxing. In addition to this, in many cases, women are expected to give their families precedence over their careers, which leads many young women to drop out of higher education in engineering.
Another closely linked factor, as pointed out by women students in engineering colleges across Delhi, is how many families continue to invest a lot more in their boys’ education as compared to their girls’, “more visibly” in rural areas but also to a large extent in metropolitan cities. Entrance exams like JEE have emerged as increasingly tough to crack and now require elaborate and proper coaching. Many parents tend to let their sons drop an entire year after school for preparation in case they don’t make it into the most reputed institutions like the IITs on the first go, while in the case of their daughters, allow them to settle for lower ranked colleges or courses of others streams altogether. Coaching centres in Delhi are overbearingly male-dominated, despite there being minimal difference in the number of male and female science students in schools. While trends show that girls outshine boys in board exam results, they often lack the resources to do equally well in engineering entrances. This then leads to a greater number of boys emerging as toppers in entrance examinations like JEE Advanced, while girls occupy the intermediate positions.
Ashi Bharadwaj, a student of Computer Science Engineering at DTU, points to how the ratio of male and female students tends to differ across the branches of engineering. Employability becomes an important factor as not many companies are willing to recruit women graduates, especially in branches like Mechanical Engineering. Women engineers are assumed to be less competent and efficient than males, despite the both of them irrefutably receiving the same education. It is still not considered “safe” for women to venture out for night shifts and off-time work, which leads to many of them giving up on the idea of studying engineering altogether, right after school. Additionally, many families continue to be sceptical about letting their daughters move to other cities to pursue higher education, as opposed to their sons, leading the former to settle either for colleges other than the best-reputed ones or courses other than engineering. Women students’ presence in engineering colleges thus becomes very limited.
Aakarshita Tiwari recounts her experiences and observations over her past year as a student of Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women (IGDTU-W) which, despite being ranked among the best in Delhi, is perhaps the least popularly recognised. In an all-women engineering college, however, the overall experience tends to be quite different from a co-ed one. The gynocentric space created within such colleges is unique in itself. While the students here appear more “sincere, subdued and academic-oriented” as compared to the more “chilled out” boys in co-ed colleges (which again could be a consequence of gendered socialisation processes), the atmosphere forged is that of comfort and safety within the all-femme space of the college. There is no fellow man ridden with a toxic superiority complex to patronise and infantalise the women students. This again illustrates how important such spaces become in a specific kind of psychological development of the young women. Their confidence increases when they are expected (even encouraged) to perform all tasks on their own – ranging from lab activities to arranging for annual college fests to leading in academic as well as non-academic co-curricular activities. Exposure to experiences in all fields and arena ultimately provides the students with a greater sense of independence and freedom. However, the initial low self-confidence does reflect at times, for instance in the lack of start-up initiatives being undertaken, as opposed to the greater trend of many engineering students leading start-ups. The curiosity and overall motivation continue to be stifled in many students.
Another important issue raised is that of popular media representation – how, in the popular imagination, the idea of an overburdened, overworked engineering student continues to be that of a male student. This hugely affects the way female students perceive their own position as engineering students – they cannot relate to the widely-circulated memes and other forms of representation and are either ridiculed, objectified, or completely ignored.
The gender disparity in enrollment in engineering colleges does not limit itself to Delhi or surrounding areas. Ruchika Dhyani, an engineering graduate from Graphic Era University, Dehradun, explains how, while the number of female students has risen in comparison to when she first joined, it is still quite low in relative terms. Despite the women students receiving the same level of education as the men, the former are regarded incompetent in their own field. The more physically taxing undertakings are the considered impossible for them. The men, in turn, grow all-too-sure of themselves, which leads to assumed superiority, patronising behaviour and generous unsolicited advice on their part. They tend to grossly underestimate the women who occupy the very same classrooms as them. While for the women, a loss of confidence and belief in oneself are major psychological consequences of this; another is the cold-blooded murder of curiosity in the student. They end up unwilling to venture beyond the pursuit of bookish knowledge and the requisite practical applications.
And this is talking about a predominantly urban upper-middle-class section of the society. What happens with the young girls who do not, in fact, come from such privilege? Do they dare to dream about receiving a good education, inhabiting healthy environments, and finding spaces within their reality where they can rise above that which holds them back? And despite the various (arguably inefficient) legal policies and mechanisms that claim to “ensure” social mobility and economic prosperity for them, can they truly access the resources required to bring their dreams to life?
These questions largely remain unanswered because of the way these young women are violently silenced – largely through marginalisation and ignorance – by the mainstream society and media, the long-standing structures of socio-economic hierarchies wherein they occupy the lower rungs, and by the state at large. Their peculiar issues can only be brought to attention with their presence in the public domain to raise their concerns, and this serves us as a reminder that there is still a very long way to go.
The under-representation of women students in the field of engineering education, thus, continues to be an issue prominently socio-cultural in nature but also has many economic implications, with innumerable capable professionals left ignored and uncredited, and minds with immense creative potential subdued. The reform (read: revolution), thus, needs to be that of perception, both that which the society at large holds of women venturing into the “traditionally exclusive masculinist” fields and proving themselves equally if not more capable and competent, as well as the self-perception of these young women and their belief in their own infinite potential. Gender sensitisation programmes, from the primary level for students and working upwards (for families as well as employer companies, if I dare say), have emerged a necessity, along with the creation of safer, healthier and egalitarian working environments for female professionals. The systematic dismantling of patriarchal, classist and casteist notions that have proved themselves incredibly violent is what is needed to ensure a healthy, egalitarian and sustainable educational environment. And while it is clear that it will only be possible through individual as well as collective efforts, the question of how long it will take for the existing situation to truly and effectively change continues to persist.