This post of mine from yesterday ended thus:
Let me get back to Bill's question here: Do our top engineering institutions think of women's underrepresentation as a problem?
This is an excellent question but it's getting passed by in the discussion. First off, I detect a strong normative flavor to some of the comments -- that (a) these TEIs *ought* to think of women's representation as a problem, and, moreover, that (b) they *ought* to do something about it, most likely by (c) catching the culprit, the overly difficult jee, which needs to be (d) simplified with the introduction of questions that are however harder than at board level.
Working backwards. (d) An astute comment pointed out that there isn't very much conceptual space between a question that is harder than the board level, and one that is at the current jee level. (c) I and others have stated elsewhere that we don't believe one can remedy deep-rooted systemic biases / ills with "tweaks" to an examination that a tiny percentage of the population is interested in.
I agree that there is certainly a strong normative streak in the discussion (my end of it, anyways). There is a lot else in this part that I agree with, so what I say next is not really about what TR said, but about the impression he seems to carry of this discussion. In particular, his paraphrase of the normative line of thinking makes it seem that the case I built up against the JEE (and in turn, the Top Engineering Institutions (TEIs)'s ) is weak. I want to correct that impression; I believe my case is fairly strong; here's why:
Formally, TEIs' students have a pre-requisite: a pass in Class XII with certain minimum marks. In principle, they could just use some objective criteria for picking the top students from high schools, and be done with it. If they chose this method (let's not worry now about normalizing across boards, rank order, who gets computer science at Kanpur, etc), they would have a large number of women.
A long time ago, TEIs decided to introduce an extra layer between high schools and them: let's call this layer the Exam. One of the results is that the student body in TEIs is overwhelmingly male.
Now consider these two choices: direct admission based on high school marks, and admission through the Exam. While both are perfectly fair 'selection machines', we know that they produce significantly different results. In particular, we know that the latter introduces a skew in the student body, a skew that keeps a lot of bright, diligent, top-of-the-class women out of TEIs. This leads me to conclude that the Exam route is unfair to women, since it seems to (prima facie, if you will) introduce a bias. And yes, this bias exists over and above the bias imposed by the society.
Well, that's a three-paragraph summary of my case, and I have not even mentioned the 'evil' of coaching centres! I am willing to change my view if some detailed studies show that the Exam route is (a) necessary, and (b) fair to everyone; but as of now, my case against the Exam, built on publicly available information, remains strong.
* * *
Moving on, TR says:
That leaves us the two questions of whether the TEIs ought to think of under-representation as a problem, and whether they ought to do something about it. My opinion (again, *opinion*) is that it's not really their job to worry about such things, let alone try to go about fixing them with the limited toolbox at their disposal. What's the point of a Top Engineering Institution, after all -- to produce Engineers and Engineering; not to Help Remedy Society's Deficiencies. That's what government is for. One might argue that the reservations effort is/was a step in that direction -- I personally don't think it was the right step, but I think *that's* the type of question to be asking because it is harder. Focusing attention on the TEIs in this case is a red herring, plus it makes us feel good since it absolves *us* of any responsibility for actually *doing* anything except looking socially concerned.
I wouldn't give the TEIs such a fantastically free passage as TR appears to. As our elite institutions, TEIs should certainly not shy away from self-introspection to see if their procedures have an implicit bias, and if so, take credible steps to address them. If they shirk this duty, their effect on the society is seriously corrosive indeed; they end up legitimizing (encouraging?) bigotry, expressed through statements such as "women can't solve problems", "women are good only for Muggu exams", or just "women are not good enough!" (We have seen some of these in several comments).
Also, as TEIs employing Big Brains, they have a responsibility to get things right -- not just academic things, but also social things. They should be sensitive to the social currents (and they should strive to stay ahead of them) because their very existence and sustenance depend on their socially conferred legitimacy. In other words, if they don't do the right thing (and their legitimacy comes to be questioned), somebody else -- read, government -- will force them to. [BTW, this applies to private institutions as well, except that government will have to use softer options (such as withdrawing research funding) to force its will down their unwilling throats.]
In demanding that our TEIs keep their end of this social bargain, we are not asking them to somehow step in and "Remedy Social Deficiencies." We are just asking them to first remedy their own little deficiencies. That's all.
Here's the final part of TR's comment:
Getting back to the TEIs -- are they completely off the hook? IIRC one of the comments from the original article that sparked this whole discussion off was an IITian professor bemoaning the decline in "sparkling eyes" in their class. As someone who teaches for a living, I strongly believe that the last person to be blamed for this is the student. TEIs are viewed very differently today from what they were twenty years ago -- how many engineering graduates today want to spend their lives as engineers? TEIs have become nothing more than a stepping-stone to other, "greater" things. This reflects in part on where the good jobs are, and in part on how society's values are changing. But someone who can teach to save their life should be able to generate sparks in the eyes of half their class, easy. If classfuls of India's best and brightest are sitting around getting bored at some of India's most exclusive undergraduate institutions, it signals to me that there's a problem that's not with the way they got there so much as with what's happened afterwards.
I am in total agreement with TR on this one. On that positive note, let me stop here.