July 1977, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay. We were the new batch of students enrolled in the two-year Master of Science programme in Physics. We joined the fourth-year integrated MSc students (who had come in through the all-India Joint Entrance Examination for a combined Bachelors and Masters degree) to constitute a class of 16. Rather unusually, our class was 50% female.

Amid the newness of exciting courses and professors, we learnt a tit-bit: The IIT-B administration had sent an advisory to all departments that while selecting students for MSc or PhD programmes (done through departmental interviews, rather than an all-India test), they should desist from choosing women because there was no room in the “Ladies Hostel”.

The response of the physics faculty, which, incidentally, had only one woman professor then, was exemplary: they viewed the lack of accommodation as an administrative problem that the administration should solve and stuck to their merit-based admission process, ignoring the advisory.

The existing 40 women in the institute (and hostel), were joined by another 40 women entrants. There was indeed no room for 80 women in the hostel, and some were accommodated in faculty housing – a bit of a nuisance, but no big deal.

Those days, occupants of the Ladies Hostel or LH, as it was known, were governed by the 10 o’clock rule – we could not leave our hostel after 10 pm. “For our safety”, we were told. So, female students who needed to use the library or run long experiments in their laboratories had to make sure they went out of the hostel before 10 pm.

Pretty soon, however, we voted for change in a hostel General Body Meeting, got the official name of LH changed to H-10 (Hostel-10), and unilaterally abandoned the 10 o’clock rule.

It was a gendered academic environment as well. It was common to hear sniggers if the one or two women present in a large engineering class asked a question, and for women to be told by peers that they got good grades because they were girls or because they were “maggoo” (slang for bookish) and not because they were bright.

It was not a level-playing field!

40 years on...

Have things changed in 40 years? Hopefully, dramatically so. Today the (still mostly male) students are taught by many female professors even in the engineering disciplines, which hopefully teaches students that it is normal and ordinary for women to be competent engineers and scientists. Mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment are hopefully in place. Extensive, open and healthy socialising between peers hopefully occurs.

However, the climb in the fraction of women in the IIT undergraduate student body has been pitiful – from about 2% then to 8% now.

Better late than never, therefore, is the move of the Joint Admissions Board of the IITs, that constituted the Timothy Gonsalves Committee to investigate the dismal gender gap. A key recommendation of the committee is addition of supernumerary seats (that is, over and above the current intake) for women who qualify in the JEE-Advanced, to which the Joint Admissions Board has reportedly agreed.

The question is, will its implementation create a gender-equal IIT student body?

Right approach

To begin with, it is highly laudable and refreshing that in its framing of the problem, the committee was unequivocal that the patriarchal mindset in society prevents girls from reaching their full potential. Secondly, the report acknowledges that diversity is one of the pillars of excellence. Thirdly, the details of what might be termed the “quota recommendation” for women have been arrived at with due diligence, by rigorously simulating consequences of the various practical options.

The problem that the quota recommendation seeks to address is the discrepancy between the percentage of girls who qualify to enter an IIT (11%-12.5%) – and the 8%-9% who actually join one. The assumption is that this discrepancy is largely because many girls are unwilling to join an IIT far away from home, often because their families would not want them to.

With a supernumerary quota, a larger number of girls would have access to a nearby IIT. It is thus really a mobility quota, meant to enable the IITs to enrol all the girls who qualify in the JEE-Advanced. Their percentage may even climb beyond the “ceiling” of 12.5% - the best that IITs can possibly do, given the limited influence they have on the mindsets of the girl students or their families.

A gendered JEE?

The elephant in the room, however, is the fact that only 11%-12.5% of JEE registrants that qualify in the JEE-Advanced are women.

The Gonsalves committee report reiterates what is well known: girls tend to outperform boys in Class 12 across boards. It also points to studies that show that undergraduate IIT female students outperform males. If the IIT admission process were unbiased and truly merit-based, a corollary to the aforementioned facts is that there should have been more women than men qualifying in the JEE-Advanced.

The committee report acknowledges that the JEE tests, by virtue of their design, may be predisposed to exclude girls, given how girls are socialised, and further, that the gender imbalance is exacerbated by gender barriers inherent in the pre-IIT coaching classes. These classes are expensive and often residential, in faraway places, making them less accessible to girls from protective families. However, the recommendations do not deal with either of these problems.

On the other hand, the report falls into the trap of endorsing the genderisation of disciplines, claiming, for instance, that women are drawn to topics that are biology-related or of societal relevance. It may just be that because the women students are overall more competent, they are better able to grapple with the intellectual complexities of the interdisciplinary work that societal relevance demands!

A female representation of 28% has been achieved in engineering colleges country-wide without them instituting any pro-active measures, and despite them also being plagued by the mobility problem. It is therefore puzzling that the report sets 20% female representation as the goal to work towards.

Given that IITs are thought of, and consider themselves, as modern, forward-looking, visionary engineering institutions of excellence, the gold standard of higher education in India, should they not be aiming higher? At the very minimum, should they not seek a female representation proportional to that of the human population?

While the report belabours the patriarchal mindset in Indian society, particularly of the parent body of IIT students, it says little about the ethos within the IITs. Does this mean that patriarchal mindsets (a la 1977) have been banished from IIT campuses?

The IITs have a highly gender-inequitable heritage. The onus is therefore on the IITs to demonstrate that (a) the gender gap in their faculty and technical staff is rapidly closing, (b) that gender harassment as well as sexual harassment are firmly dealt with and also pre-empted, and (c) gender sensitisation training of faculty, staff and students is serious, rigorous, regular and repeated. Germane to the problem with the admissions process is gender-sensitisation of the admission counsellors.

Most important, virtually any intervention towards gender equity, whether through quotas or not, will end up stigmatising the women, unless all faculty, staff and students are sensitised to the prevalent societal marginalisation of women, which necessitates such interventions. All of this is conspicuous by its absence in the committee report. How, then, can IITs project themselves as safe and nurturing learning environments for students of all genders?

Therefore, this is the moment for deep and tough questions: Does the IIT admission process select youngsters who are passionate about and talented in engineering and science, which is what it is purported to do? If yes, then why does it end up admitting so few women, who, evidence suggests, are outperforming their male peers both in high school as well as within the IITs? Why does the selection process seem to be a gate-keeping mechanism that is filtering out talented groups of society from the tax-payer-funded high-quality engineering and science education institutions? The way forward lies in getting to the bottom of this conundrum.

Prajval Shastri is an astrophysicist and Professor at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru. The views expressed here are personal.