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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Poor gender ratio in IITs and other top institutes

I thank my good friend Salil Dave to have forwarded the following link on admission stats at MIT. Interestingly, MIT selects ~20% of the girls who apply and only ~8% of the boys - since more than twice the number of males apply than females, the net effect is that the incoming class has about the same number of boys and girls. Assuming that the applicant abilities are not a function of gender, this is a deliberate admissions policy to have a 'balanced' class.

I thought it was pretty obvious that neither the abilities of women are any less than men when it comes to science in 12th class, nor are their performance in engineering disciplines any less when it comes to engineering institutes. In fact, one can go over the results of 12th class board exams in any state in India, and one will find that amongst the top 100 or top 1000, the girls actually perform marginally better than boys. And, when one looks at performance of girls in engineering colleges, it has been reported that there is no difference.

Given all this, the obvious fallout is that if an institute is keen to admit the best possible students, it should try to have a class which is gender balanced. If your admission process does not result in a gender-balanced class, there is something wrong with the process, and it needs to be relooked into.

Less than 10 percent of the students admitted to undergraduate programs at IITs are girls. In view of above, this is extremely serious. There may be a large number of reasons for this serious imbalance. Parents may not want to spend money on coaching of their daughters, when they have no problems to do it for their sons. Parents may not want to send their daughters to far away places like Kota for coaching. (And there is no denying that most people who get selected in JEE today come in after a serious amount of coaching.) May be females can't take the stress of a single exam deciding lifetime of choices. May be there are other reasons as well.

It is important that IITs try to understand those reasons and then try to come up with an admission process which ensures that despite all such reasons, they still get the best possible students, which they are not getting right now.

It is interesting to note that such a problem exists only in the top 50 odd institutions (amongst engineering ones). The reason is not difficult to see. Due to coaching, the relative ranking of boys go up by a few 10s of thousands ranks. If we just look at 12th class performance, then, as we said earlier, in top 1000, there are 500+ girls and 500- boys (because 12th class exams are generally without excessive coaching). But in top 1000 of JEE or AIEEE, there will be only 5 percent girls. This percentage of girls keep increasing as ranks lower and at 50000+ ranks, one starts seeing about 50 percent girls. So all institutions who take the students from top 10,000 ranks would have the worst gender ratio. Institutions who are in the middle and take admission from ranks 10,000 to 50,000 primarily would have a better gender ratio, and institutes who admit students beyond 50,000 rank, would have no gender imbalance.

Any good university in the world will study the profile of students joining it, and if it notices that a certain class of good students are missing, it would study whether it is because they are not attracted to the university or it is because the university's admission process is in some way excluding them. In either case, some steps will be taken to remedy the problem.

The top institutions in India too should relook at their admission strategy and find ways to admit more girl students not because of some equal access issues, but because it will improve the average performance of the class.

Unfortunately, it is easier said than done. Particularly looking at IITs, the JEE has always been a holy cow. You can't criticize it. To argue that JEE has not been admitting the best students all along will cause major ripples amongst the alumni, because it is directly questioning whether they were the best. And no faculty member in IITs, in general, would want to admit that they teach anyone but the best. So there is no incentive to change, and as long as National Commission for Women is silent on this, so much the better.

So, changes in JEE are almost always pushed from the politicians and bureaucrats (and then we complain about lack of autonomy, interference, etc. if you don't fix your house, someone else will). And politicians have so far focused on caste based access. May be they haven't realized the gender-based inequity. But one day they will. I only hope that that day comes sooner than later, because a mechanism to improve gender equity will only improve the quality of students in IITs and other top institutions.

Now, the obvious question is what can be done. There are multiple ways to handle this problem. One is, of course, to make major changes in JEE so that coaching has less possibility of enhancing success in JEE. That is a very long-term issue, and I have written about it in my earlier blogs as well, and I really don't think a major well thought of change to JEE is possible.

The other possibilities are based on assumption that JEE will remain by and large what it is. One possibility is to give extra credits (marks) to women to compensate for the difficulties they in general would have faced in JEE preparation, and through this means increase the number of girls in the merit list. This is a standard way of providing easier access to disadvantaged groups in several countries. Even in India, there are instances of attracting sports-persons to a university by giving him/her credits (add something to 12th class marks before preparing the admission merit list). A prominent central university was giving preferential treatment to people from disadvantaged backgrounds in this fashion before they were forced to apply reservations.

And, of course, the option of reservation is always there, something that we all in India understand extremely well. What we can do is to look at the current ratio (say 10 percent), and reserve a slightly higher number of seats for women (say 15 percent). Let us do this for a couple of years, and study the performance of men versus women in these batches. If the performance of women is similar to men, then we increase the reservation to 20 percent, and so on.