This post is going to be long. Very long. Don't complain that I didn't warn you!
Also, this post is unlikely to have anything that I have not said before. But I still want to write this post because I want to get all the arguments and data -- and links, too! -- in one place.
A couple of things before I start. First, I want to say a big "Thank You" to all of you who came by and commented on the previous two posts. The number of comments on this post is a record for this humble blog. The comments on the bleg post, where many of you gave me some data on the proportion of women in your engineering class, were interesting, and I found them very useful in refining my own thinking on this issue. And finally, my special thanks go to Bill for writing a very thoughtful post on JEE's bias against women.
Second, just as low numbers of women in science and engineering (which become even lower in IITs as well as at higher levels of education) bother me, I am sure they bother many of you too. Given these low numbers, and given that we would like women's participation in engineering (and other fields, too!) to grow, we are interested in finding the underlying causes, so that suitable remedies can be found. The lack of agreement between Vivek (and some commenters) and me (and some other commenters) is essentially in the latter realm -- of understanding the reasons for women's under-representation; but the gap in our positions will continue to shrink as we keep this discussion going, and as we get more data to look at. On some observations, there's already some agreement: that our society doesn't value women's education as much as it does men's, and that high quality educational opportunities (IITs, AIIMS, NLSUI, etc.) are too few.
With the preliminaries out of the way, let's move forward.
1. First, the numbers
Vivek has unearthed an interesting document -- a report from the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) -- about the status of women in science (and engineering) in India [[I too had linked to it in a recent post]; it covers both higher education and employment. For the present purposes, the key data are in Tables 2, 3 and 4 (on pages 7-8) in Part I (pdf), covering college enrollment.
Among the college-goers, only 39.4 percent were women; more pertinently, just 21 percent of the engineering students were women. The only fields that do worse (in terms of women's participation) are veterinary science (20.9 percent), law (20 percent) and agriculture (17.4 percent). In most other fields (science, commerce, arts, etc), women's participation was around the overall average: commerce and management (36.5), science (39.4), medicine (44), and arts (44.2). Education is the only field in which women (51.2 percent) outnumbered men. All this is from 2001.
If you look at the trend from 1996 to 2001, the fraction of women increased in all fields. While percent of women went from 36 to 39.4 across all fields, it went from 16 to 21.5 in engineering. An encouraging sign.
Let's move down to Classes X and XII. At the level of Class XII, boys outnumber girls, but only by a slim margin in CBSE. While it is possible that in other exam boards boys may outnumber girls by a bigger margin, it is also true that girls outperform boys in these exams. So, when you look at the stream of students coming out of Class XII, boys may enjoy, at best, a small advantage in numbers.
But at the college level, the INSA report shows clearly that men have a 6-to-4 edge; indicating that more girls than boys drop out of the education pipe at this important transition point.
Let us now turn to the data specific to engineering. The subjects that a student has to take at Class XII to get into engineering are mathematics, physics and chemistry (MPC). It is possible that the boys/girls ratio gets skewed in favour of boys in classes with MPC. Further, in most states, there are many, many single-sex schools. It is possible that boys' schools in those states outnumber those meant for girls, introducing some additional skew in favour of the boys. I can't put a figure on the exact extent of this skew in Class XII with MPC.
When you come to engineering itself, the distribution of women is uneven. Some disciplines, such as computer science and electronics engineering, seem to have a fairly high fraction of women (30 to 50 percent); see the comments on the previous post (specifically, here, here, and here). On the other hand, in 'traditional' engineering subjects such as mechanical engineering or my own field, metallurgical engineering, there are typically very few women.
Given the trend during 1996-2001 when women went from 16 percent to 21.5 percent, and given that the fields in which women participate in large numbers are also the fields that have been experiencing higher growth rates in output, I wouldn't be surprised if the fraction of women in engineering is close to (or, even above) 25% now.
[Aside: A couple of commenters have alluded to reservation for girls in engineering colleges [Orissa, AP]. Frankly, I was unaware of it. In these states, girls do go into disciplines such as mechanical engineering and metallurgical engineering in not insignificant numbers!]
Given that engineering is a discipline that continues to grow quite rapidly, and given that girls compete successfully to get into the more rapidly growing disciplines, we come to the rather happy conclusion that the number of women is increasing at a faster pace (albeit from a low base) than that of men.
The proportion of women decreases as they move from Class XII (where they have perhaps a small disadvantage in numbers) to college (where they are outnumbered 4 to 6). In college, their proportion is smaller in engineering (21.5 % in 2001, and perhaps 25% now). Their proportion is much greater than this average in fast-growing engineering disciplines than in traditional ones.
The society's impact is fairly self-evident in this trend: women's education receives less family attention and support, and certain engineering disciplines are seen as less desirable for women. Vivek made essentially these points in his first post on this subject; while he has been right about these societal effects, I believe that he overestimates their influence, leading him to deny that JEE might have a built-in bias against women. It is this we turn to next.
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2. Let's look at JEE now, shall we?
Women constitute between 2 and 8 percent of IITs undergraduate student body. In 2005, this fraction was 6.3 percent (321/5092). In 2006, however, "there [was] only marginal increase in successful female candidates as compared to JEE-2005." The total number of successful candidates, on the other hand, went up from 5092 to 6343. Clearly, the fraction of women among the successful candidates in 2006 was likely about 5 percent. [Here too, I would like to see some studies giving figures for all the IITs since their inception.]
Thus, in a random selection of students in 2005 or 2006, women are three to four times less likely to be found in IITs than in other engineering colleges. This, by itself, does not constitute an evidence for (a plausible) bias in JEE against women. For that, we have to show that the fraction of women in the eligible pool of candidates is far higher than that in the IITs.
[A related argument is the following. Think about the trends in the number of women in engineeing colleges: it is increasing quite rapidly (albeit from a small base). What about the IITs? Their absolute number hasn't gone beyond 500! ]
Since IITs are premier engineering institutions in the country, its students would be from the pool of top students in Class XII. What do we know about this cohort? Consider the CBSE results for Class X in 2006: among those with 90% marks and above, there were nearly as many girls as boys, and among those with 95% marks and above, girls outnumbered boys 9 to 8. [I would love to get my hands on a detailed study of Class XII results!]
A second metric, which Falstaff prefers, is the fraction of women among those taking the JEE. In 2005, it was about 15 percent (30,000 out of 200,000), and in 2006, it was about 20 percent (60,000 out of 300,000). [Given the past history of women's success in JEE, Falstaff also wonders if women self-select out of this exam -- particularly in the second attempt. I too think it's possible; but again, there's no data.]
A third metric is the fraction of women among those entering engineering colleges in a given year. From the INSA report, we know that as of 2001 it was around 21 percent; I would put the current figure at around 25%.
If you use any of these metrics, the fraction of women in IITs is far lower than what one would reasonably expect from a consideration of the eligible pool of candidates. Does this establish a plausible bias in JEE against women? I think so.
Does this bias represent a second level of handicap over and above that imposed on women by our society? I think so.
[Heck, even a very badly skewed model proposed by Falstaff leads to an estimate of 13 % for the disadvantaged group!]
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3. Is JEE (in its current format) really necessary?
In principle, there is no need for any entrance exam if we had some way of normalizing the students' performance in exams conducted by India's many different Boards. The students' (normalized) marks themselves could be used for rank-ordering them, and they could then be assigned to go to different institutions based on their rank and their choice.
Thus, the use of an entrance exam (other than, of course, as a mechanism for normalizing across many exam boards) needs a clear articulation of the need for it. For example, one should be able to say, "engineering requires certain special skills, and not only does JEE test students on those special skills, the board exams do a poor job of it."
Remember, this utility of JEE cannot just be asserted. It should be backed up with data from serious, large and long-term studies, which I don't believe the IITs have done [in case you are interested, here is my rant on this topic]. But I know of one study (and I don't know how broad a data-set it used), that produced some very interesting findings:
- ‘‘There is a strong correlation between the marks of Classes X, XII and the CGPA during B Tech. The correlation factor is close to 1.’’ This means, the chances of a good student in school doing well in B Tech is almost 100 per cent.
- ‘‘There is little correlation between marks in Class X, Class XII and AIR.’’ That is, good performers in school are not likely to get good AIR in the present selection system.
- ‘‘There is little correlation between AIR and CGPA.’’ This means, toppers in the JEE are not at the top during their B Tech programme.
This (probably limited) study is a strong indictment of JEE as a filter-exam. It indicates that the exam cannot claim any superiority in discovering those special people with even more special skills which are to be honed further in the IITs. I'm not sure if we can define such special skills in a sufficiently precise and testable manner that will be useful for all the programs that IITs offer: from computer science to mining to agricultural engineering. [The US universities seem to be happy with standardized but relatively general-purpose exams such as SAT for admitting students into all kinds of undergrad programs.]
Thus, I believe JEE should be replaced with an exam that has as its primary purpose the simple job of normalizing the scores across exam boards. Yes, this does imply that the questions must be standardized (pre-tested on a sample of students, with more difficult questions carrying a greater weight). More importantly, it also implies that it must stick to the syllabus that's actually used in Classes XI and XII -- both in breadth and depth.
[Aside: Some -- notably, RC -- have argued that since JEE is a 'selection machine' that has no prior conception of differences among candidates, it's not biased. This is a pretty lax yardstick with which to judge the fairness of a selection machine; by this yardstick, even a lottery is a fair machine! More seriously, however, we do have many other selection machines -- er, entrance exams -- that do a far better job of allowing women to succeed.]
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4. How will the new format help?
The main problem with JEE -- that makes it biased against women, students from poor families and rural areas -- is that it is pitched at such a high level that students need external help through coaching centres. Some have asked how the need for coaching affects women. I see at least two ways: (a) coaching centres don't come cheap, and to the extent families value women's education less than they do men's, women get less money to spend on coaching, implying that many women who could benefit from coaching get insufficient amounts -- or none -- of it; and, (b) 'reputed' coaching centres are far away (Kota, Hyderabad), or they have classes during early mornings or late evenings (and one centre in Mumbai even tried all-night classes!): all these are clearly unfriendly for women.
Would a modified version of JEE really help in getting more women into the IITs? To the extent that performance in JEE tracks that in CBSE exams (for example), it is clear that more -- many, many more! -- women will make it to the IITs.
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5. How about your objection about the coaching centres?
Will the new form of JEE reduce the corrosive role of coaching centres? Several (including Vivek and Tabula Rasa) seem convinced that it won't. The argument goes like this: "since the competition is so intense, even a small advantage due to these centres will help; thus, if boys have an advantage now, they will be able to carry it over to the new regime too." Not so fast! Consider this: schools themselves can train students for tackling both board exam and the new JEE; teachers can offer extra classes for motivated students.
I am willing to concede that the clamor for every possible advantage -- gettable at a price, of course -- will ensure that coaching centres will not go away. But, the extent of help can certainly be minimized by an exam that tests students at their level.
[Why doesn't this -- coaching at schools by the regular teachers -- happen now? In the current set up, with an extremely tough and high-level JEE, teachers and schools are unable to play this role, because they are ill-equipped to handle the college-level material demanded by JEE. (In fact, the format of JEE invites students to devalue their regular school education!)]
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6. Anything else?
Yes, in its normalizing avatar, the new, improvedTM JEE can also become a uniter. It can replace all the other entrance exams. Currently, an aspiring engineering student needs to take the current JEE, AIEE, and one or two state-level entrance exams as well. They all have different emphasis, and require different kinds of preparation. In the new scheme of things, JEE is all there is. Our youth will be spared the pain of juggling conflicting requirements of many entrance exams.
What about concern that solving JEE level questions is a joy for some students? I suggest these exalted souls participate in Olympiads, the intellectual counterpart of the Olympic Games. When they do, it will be because of the love and joy of solving some super-problems; not because some frustrated professors thought up a crazy way to terrorize hundreds of thousands of innocent students. Though these Olympians do not need any incentives, we can still think of some: I suggest that the IITs set aside, say, 500 seats under the "Olympiad quota".
The rest of the students can get on with their lives in relative peace.
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As I said, I have collected here several different strands that were scattered in various posts and comments. Thank you for reading all the way down here; you deserve an award!