The Female Reservation: Affirmative Action for Gender Equality in IITs and Engineering

I was a little unprepared for the sharp decline in the number of girls when I chose science stream in 11th grade. The numbers were worse in coaching classes, which are a necessity to get through to a good engineering college in India. Parents prefer to not send girls away for coaching, and this is especially true for girls in small towns, where kids have to move to a different “coaching town” like Kota. The percentage of girls in coaching classes get reflected in top engineering colleges. In the most sought-after colleges, like the one I went to and the IITs, only around 10% of students are girls.
The national percentage of girls pursuing engineering is about 30%, as opposed to a decent 46% in BSc courses. Engineering seems to suffer the most out of STEM fields.

IIT Roorkee
IIT Roorkee

Elite colleges fair the worst.
But isn’t that the natural order of things, one might think? We live in a free society after all. Google drew ire from some parts of the media when they fired James Damore for sharing a memo stating that there are fundamental reasons for gender inequality in STEM fields. His document cites a lot of research papers to further his argument. So what does the science say? Recent research states that there might, in fact, be inherent behavioural differences between genders, but they are minuscule compared to societal factors. Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell summed it up nicely saying “claiming that the inherent behavioural differences explain the lack of women in STEM without acknowledging the rampant, entrenched sexism they face is, how to put this, not scientific.” In fact, the inherent differences should be an added reason to have more women in tech. As IIT Mandi Director Thomas Gonsalves put it

“Society is half female. An engineering team that has strong members of both genders will better serve the needs of the whole society.”

But why focus on tech given that female employment in India is low all over and declining further across industries. The fact that the tech industry is one of the highest paying fields and a significant portion of new wealth created is coming from tech is a good reason. Women have historically controlled a tiny percentage of the world’s assets, and this imbalance affects us all. Women attaining economic power is essential to make everything a lot less off-kilter, and tech is an opportunity to remedy this.

Equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome

There are two primary ways to fix inequality via public policy. One is to strive for equality of opportunity, which means making the environment such that everybody has an equal shot at achieving something no matter their background. This approach requires fixing the entire pipeline, like tackling gender bias in the upbringing of kids and is hence resource intensive. The other is to focus on equality of outcome, which means optimising for an equal result by creating incentives at the end of the pipeline and hoping the issues along the pipeline sort themselves out over time. Affirmative-action aka reservation takes this approach and is the tool of choice in India as it is more straightforward to affect via policy. The IITs, based on Thomas Gonsalves’ committee, have instituted a supernumerary quota in admissions to the IITs that will come into effect from this year. The plan lays out intent to increase the number of girls to 20% by 2020.
The problem with aiming for equality of outcome is that it’s not a holistic solution. The Haryana government increased the gender ratio from a dismal 834 girls per 1000 boys to 914 over the last seven years through the “save the girl child” campaign. They did this in part by banning sex-selective abortion. However, this campaign has done nothing to change mindsets as people keep having children until they have a boy, and the girls born before boys are often less cared for.
According to the govt.’s annual economic survey India now has 21 million such “unwanted girls”. Similar is the case for the quota in seats for legislative assemblies where almost all major political parties of India tend to give such berths to wives of popular leaders, and the ad campaigns carry the men’s face on billboards.
A lot of the female directors added to company boards as mandated by the Companies Act, 2013 are family members of existing directors, which fails the entire idea of bringing in new voices. None of these measures turned out to be comprehensive.
On being asked whether affirmative-action or fixing-the-pipeline is the more effective strategy, Naadiya Moosajee, co-founder of the non-profit WomEng that works to develop engineering leaders, said “these two approaches go hand in hand. The ability to open spaces for women is key but cannot be done in isolation of addressing some of the social, economic and societal barriers women and girls face.” In absolute terms, equality of opportunity strives to provide the same starting line whereas equality of outcome aims for the same finishing line. Optimising for either one of these is neither enough nor possible. In fact, the efficacy of equality of opportunity can be measured only by equality of outcome. An approach that involves a proper balance of both is best.

The way forward

In Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, one of the best movies made around engineering and entrepreneurship, the lines are drawn pretty clear. Boys build things while girls don’t have to study because they “go to BU”. Teenagers’ experience of that same movie will be very different depending on their gender. Boys will see broken role models. Girls will know to look elsewhere if they want good careers.
And we will all be worse for it. Mr Gonsalves said “Affirmative action is a short-term measure that will immediately increase the gender ratio. These larger number of women will serve as role models to attract more bright schoolgirls to IITs. Going forward, we need to identify talented girls in 8th standard and inspire them to aim for an engineering career.”
What he is talking about is known as the “role model problem”. Ironically and yet unsurprisingly, women faculty at the top 5 IITs number around 15%. The gender equity problem is pervasive across all levels. Abhishek Gupta, the IIT grad founder of the NGO Navgurukul that trains underprivileged kids to be engineers, tells me

“We have been facing problems trying to hire a female software engineer as a core team member because there aren’t enough of them. To ensure an equitable number of girls at all levels in companies in the industry we need to train a large number of girls to mitigate the gap.”

NavGurukul has decided to graduate more girls than boys.
We need engineering programs directed at girls still in school along the lines of Kode with Klossy, a coding camp in America run by Karlie Kloss. There’s a need to make coding cool not only for girls but their parents as well. Parents need to be made aware of the opportunities that lie ahead for their daughters if they chose to become engineers. The solution might not be easy, and we might not get there quick enough, but at least we know what we need to fix this. More Karlie Kloss. Less James Damore. Let’s go.

Bio: Akshay Tyagi dropped out of the prestigious Delhi Technological University and went on to found a few companies and led them to “ramen profitability”. He is currently figuring out the next thing. He tweets @theakshaytyagi

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