Vivek has done a great job of collecting a lot of interesting data women in engineering for many countries (but mostly in the West). They all point to a low figure of 20 percent for the ratio of women among engineers.
A first look at these data might lead one to despair; there seems to be a grim sort of determinism at play: as development progresses and India too becomes more and more like the West, this 20 percent may be the "attractor" towards which India too will move inexorably. But, this grim view is unnecessary. There are big differences between the West and India, and the path we take need not take us to the same destination that the West has reached now. Let's look at some of these differences. In discussing these differences, I don't mean to underplay the problems women face in the West, but to point out that since the underlying causes are different, the solutions must be too.
* * *
1. In India, engineering courses (along with medicine, law and accounting where the overall numbers are small) are highly sought after; so much so that many students are willing to attend some no name, tin pot college to study computer science (and pay good money too!), instead of attending a good, reputed college to study science/arts/commerce. In the West, on the other hand, there are many, many options for an incoming freshman; not getting into engineering does not handicap a student when it comes to the job market, where there are plenty of opportunities for non-engineering majors.
This difference is reflected in the debates as well. In the US, for example, people talk about what the institutions (and their people and practices) must do to "attract" more women; alternatively, they talk about how the current practices drive women students away. In India, on the other hand, we are (at least I am!) talking about the ways in which our institutions are keeping bright and very interested women out, and why they must change their practices.
2. An 18-year old in the West is expected to choose his/her career path; others may offer advice and guidance, but the responsibility for the final choice is largely on the individual. In India, on the other hand, college related decisions have significant -- and in many cases, decisive -- inputs from the parents (and the rest of the family). [When a student rebels against the choices made for him/her, it is considered sufficiently unusual for people to talk about it!]
3. In the West too, societal pressure works to deter women from entering S&E programs in college. But this pressure is largely from peers ("math is uncool", "physics is for nerds", etc); the pressure from parents, teachers and other significant elders is subtle and covert. In India, I don't know of detailed studies, but my guess is that the pressure comes mainly from the parents and other family members. Vivek himself identified quite a few problems. In addition, Govar points to parents' concerns about overqualification that makes it difficult for them to find someone even more qualified to marry their daughters off. On a different note, Gopal points to parents' concerns about their daughters' hostel stay (since many of our top colleges have their own fully residential campuses), etc. Happily for us, many of these society- and culture-imposed problems are on the losing side. At least in cities. Increasing participation of women in computer science and electronics programs is indicative of this trend. Will other fields -- metallurgical engineering! -- to catch this trend?
4. The differences in the underlying societal causes for women's underrepresentation in engineering imply that remedies are also different. Thus, in the West, one tries to figure out how the 'peer effect' can be countered; in India, on the other hand, one looks at how parents' attitudes can be changed. However, in both places, there are problems at the institutional level too. In the US, Zuska, Janet Stemwedel and Sean Carroll devote considerable space for discussing this issue. It is this kind of discussion we are engaged in here.
5. Finally, institutions in the West (at least some of them in the US, about which I have better knowledge), are acutely aware of their inability to attract women into S&E careers. And some of them are doing something about it. Just a couple of weeks ago, I linked to this NYTimes piece about the efforts of top computer science departments to attract more women to their undergrad programs.
Moving emphasis away from programming proficiency was a key to the success of programs Dr. Blum and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon instituted to draw more women into computer science. At one time, she said, admission to the program depended on high overall achievement and programming experience. The criteria now, she said, are high overall achievement and broad interests, diverse perspectives and whether applicants seem to have potential to be future leaders.
“In this more balanced environment, the men and women were more alike than different,” she said. “Some women are hackers and some men are hackers, and some women love applications and some men love applications.”
With the changes at Carnegie Mellon, women now make up almost 40 percent of computer science enrollees, up from 8 percent, Dr. Blum said.
In the comments section of his own post, Bill, who is from the very department mentioned in the above quote (and who is also an IIT alumnus), has this to say:
I was at CMU where they have become concerned by the low number of women entering CS (did you see the Times article just over a week ago?) and are in the middle of seeing how they can modify the situation. Their tweaks over the last five years have slowly but steadily increased the number of women applying, and also, getting admitted. Of course their entrance procedures are very different but my point is does IIT even recognise this as a problem? I, for one, see no evidence of that.
In India, Dilip talks about BITS-Pilani going through an exercise in soul-searching, because women's enrollment dropped precipitously when that institution introduced an entrance exam in 2004. A similar point was raised by Tobacconist on Vivek's original post. Here's the relevant part from Dilip's post:
- Over the years, BITS admitted an ever-increasing number of girls, still on school-leaving marks. When I visited the campus in early 2004, the sex ratio was more like 2:3. (Still f:m). I believe part of that increase is explained by hugely expanded hostel space for girls.
- In 2004, BITS introduced their new online admissions test, BITSAT. The immediate fallout was a drastic drop in the number of girls admitted. I believe the ratio among 2004 entrants was something like 1:10, uncomfortably like in my time.
- This drop is of serious concern to BITS authorities, who I believe are examining (among other things) if the test itself has or encourages gender bias.
Let me get back to Bill's question here: Do our top engineering institutions think of women's underrepresentation as a problem?