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The gender skew

Girls outperform boys in board exams, but why do they falter after that?

Shyamal Majumdar 

Shyamal Majumdar

The director of a top engineering school in India had some interesting figures to share. Till a few years back, the school's admission process was based purely on marks scored in the Class 12 board exams. Till that system lasted, the ratio of female students on the campus was 40 per cent. The school has since shifted to an All-India Engineering Entrance Examination following a directive from the government. The shift has meant two things: one, roughly one in every 75 candidates gets admission and second, the percentage of female students has dropped to 14 per cent.

That's a steep fall - something the director says should be a part of a research project. It's intriguing indeed. At a time when girls' grades in board exams are soaring while those of boys are stagnating and girls are outperforming boys in elementary school, middle school and high school, why is it that so few girls are succeeding in professional examinations? Surely, a fall in enrolment figures from 40 per cent to 14 per cent defies logic.

The 14 per cent figure is still better if one compares that with the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) where the number of female students is just about 10 per cent. This is despite the fact that for the first time in the IIT's history two women have cracked the top 10 barrier. One got an all-India rank of six, the other eight.

One answer for the gender skew in India's engineering schools could be found in the following experience of a female student. When she decided to pursue engineering, the typical reaction from almost everybody was, "Engineering? Why?" or "Do you know what you're getting yourself into?" Another student recounts how even her male friends advised her to avoid mechanical engineering as the job isn't "suitable for women". Of course she chose mechanical engineering because that's what she wanted to do, though her parents preferred computer science as that would guarantee a job in an air-conditioned environment. It's not a surprise, therefore, that the maximum number of female students in the school can be found in the computer science class.

Richa Mittal of the Center for Educational Technology, IIT, finds another reason: though girls consistently outperform boys in the board exams and preparatory work for the engineering entrance exam, parents of female students are still disinclined to send their children far away from home and thus, opt for local colleges. The other issue is cost. Many parents are still reluctant to spend that much on their girl child's education since they have to keep extra money aside for her wedding. There is no such concern when it comes to boys. This may sound a bit outlandish in a modern age, but sadly it's still true.

Though the reasons may vary, the poor percentage of girls in professional courses seems to be a global trend. Though a record number of women entered Harvard and Wharton in 2012 (nearly 45 per cent of the class at Wharton and 40 per cent at Harvard), in a number of other business schools such as Notre Dame's Mendoza, Carnegie Mellon's Tepper, North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler, and Indiana's Kelley, women enrolment hovered in the 20 per cent range only.

In her brilliant book, "Unlocking your brilliance: Smart strategies for women to thrive in science, technology, engineering and math", Karen Purcell who majored in electrical engineering, says the gap starts very early, when girls in middle school and high school start getting subtle messages that maths and science are for boys. Even though plenty of research shows that girls do just as well as boys on standardised maths tests, there is this unintentional bias among parents and educators that pushes boys toward science and math, and nudges girls away.

Similar biases exists in the workplace. Purcell still runs into the occasional client on a construction site who automatically looks to a male team member for answers, even if he's fresh out of school. The accomplished engineer thinks in very practical terms, the shortage of women leads to problems like mistakes in product design. Look at what happened when automotive engineers designed the first airbags, for example. The airbags were designed to fit the body dimensions of the all-male design team. So when the airbags deployed in car accidents, people with smaller body sizes - women and children - were at risk of injury. Something similar occurred with voice-recognition software, which at first was calibrated to recognise only male voices. Having more women around helps companies design products that will work for all their customers, not just the male half.

Some say women themselves are missing out on great opportunities by not going into these fields. According to a study published in the American Sociological Review, women are less likely than men to become professional engineers primarily because of their lack of "professional role confidence" - that is the faith in one's ability to become a professional engineer, as well as a belief that engineering is a good match with one's interests and values. That's because in many ways, competence in engineering is still associated in people's minds with men and masculinity more than it is with women and femininity.

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First Published: Thu, August 01 2013. 21:46 IST