The issue of skewed sex ratios in higher education — a problem that gets worse with technical institutes, and further with a top-tier technical institute like ours — is not limited to India or even the ‘developing’ countries of the world; it seems universal. Despite women being leading users of technology, the number of women involved in making this technology has been shown to be dismally low even in the US and Europe. As in all IITs, the sex ratio here too is abysmal. The 15 guys hostels and the 3 girls hostels; undergraduate classrooms that rarely have more than a few rows of girls huddled together and the fact that you’d probably have to jog all around insti to see the same number of girls as the guys that you’d see at Gurunath, all illustrate this fact.
That’s as far as the statistics go. But what do students in the institute think of this issue? What do they think can be done about it? How relevant do they think are discussions on it?
It was with the ambitious intent of gauging all of this that The Fifth Estate recently conducted a survey (you can view the infographics below). A few caveats, to begin with, about the scope of this survey: one, we restricted the survey to two of the ‘mainstream’ genders: male and female; two, only 765 of the 7000-strong student community responded to the questions we asked and three, the small number makes self-selection bias quite possible (say, only those with extreme opinions on gender would have been motivated to respond). There were vast variations in the responses we got; many complained that the questions themselves were framed in ways that excluded their opinions. Evidently, there can be no survey on this matter that wholly represents everyone. Nevertheless, we believe that an analysis of the responses we got can serve as a starting point in terms of opening up dialogue and debate.
Of the respondents, 75.2% were male, and 24.3% were female. Undergraduates (BTech and Dual Degree) formed a majority. At the outset, 88% of the respondents indicated that men and women should be equally ambitious regardless of the roles society might expect them to play.The majority (87.9%) of the students feel that a possible reason for the unequal sex ratio could be that boys are more encouraged to pursue a technical education in India – the other options were that women would ‘naturally’ have to stay at home to give children the motherly care they need, and that girls/women tend to be more ‘lazy’, being assured of spouses’ support. Whatever be the reasons, almost 62% of the population agrees upon is that the cultural and academic environment in the institute would benefit from an improved sex ratio.
Is Insti Culture Gender-Friendly?
A good number of our questions attempted to assess how respondents perceived the relationship between IITM’s student culture and gender inequality. The responses to some questions indicated that there was an even split between those who felt that sexism was brought in by students, and that the institute had nothing to do with it, and those who felt that insti culture does perpetuate gender biases.
One commenter reflected the common opinion that insitute norms on gender interaction reflect the norms of Indian society in general: “Insti suffers from the same stigma that causes the Indian society to label girls who have male friends as ‘easy’ or ‘loose’. Coming to specific incidents, a male friend and I have been shooed away from sitting at bus stops, GC, etc. during the night. They also told me it was for my safety that they were doing it. I’ve been on numerous walks with my girl friends; needless to say that this hasn’t happened then. Some professors don’t help matters either, picking on you in class if you are happening to sit with a member of the opposite gender.”
Two commonly held perceptions are: 1) there are skill sets specific to each gender and 2) both genders are equally capable. From your experiences in insti, how have your perceptions changed?
57.9 % were convinced by their experiences in insti that both genders are equally capable in terms of skills, whereas 21.4% indicated that their belief in gender-specific skills was reaffirmed in insti — a positive indicator about the work culture in IITM.
Only 26.4% of the surveyed population said that they have more or equal number of friends of the opposite gender. Whereas only 37.6% of the female respondents indicated that they socialize only with those of the same gender, a whopping 80.1% of the males largely spend time with same-gender groups.This shows that practical difficulties, such as spatial segregation (which should make interaction equally difficult for males and females), are not the only source of restricted interaction across genders. One of the unexpected consequences of the sex ratio seems to be that it encourages females to interact with those of the opposite sex, at the same time restricting males to males-only social groups. “Girl population in insti is very low, sadly. So guys find it difficult to interact with girls. 4 girls in a class of 84. Obviously interaction between 80 guys and 4 girls is not possible. Only few guys interact with girls. And that has become a part of the culture,” remarked one respondent.
There is the general feeling among girls that two of IITM’s most prominent extra-curricular activities — sports and quizzing — have remained lacking in significant female presence for decades. Of sports, certain kinds of sport, such as badminton, see high female participation, whereas those like cricket and football remain male-dominated. As if echoing these concerns, 44% of the respondents feel that even though there are no obvious restrictions for participating in social activities, social rules and perceptions do exist regarding participation.
‘Coddling’ Girls: Reverse Discrimination or Same Old?
A case in point is the adjusted Schroeter rules that allow significant advantages — such as disallowing physical contact and defence inside the ‘D’ — to female players playing against a male team have always been a source of much acrimony and bitterness. Girls’ teams that win in such a scenario are often seen as inferior, and the captains of many male hostels have raised objections against the rules. One of the commenters in the survey also thought the relaxed rules are a manifestation of the same old prejudices against women: ‘The clear bias in rules during schroeter matches just screams ‘We know girls can’t play so let’s make it easier for them’.
Raghavi Kodati, ex-Sharavati Sports Secretary, thinks otherwise: “As an ex-Sports Sec, I think the relaxed rules have many benefits. They encourage more people to play. There is no football,cricket or hockey NSO — so there would be no opportunity to play if not for Schroeter. And playing Schroeter would be intimidating if there was no relaxation of any sort. Playing against guys also gives better exposure to the game than playing against girls’ teams from within IITM. So, overall, I think some relaxation is necessary at this stage considering that most girls come from a non-sports background. The motivation is to get more of them to be enthu about sports, and not really make excellent players or prove a point to the guys.”
What with the increasing number of girls and girls’ hostels, Women’s Schroeter was introduced this year — on one hand, this means that females and males can play on an equal footing. One the other, it discourages mixed participation, affirming the stereotype that males are ‘naturally’ better at sports.
Another popular instance of reverse discrimination that many brought up was the issue of night shuttles being available only for females, although male hostels are much farther from the main gate. Many lamented the fact that buildings and facilities like the Central Library, CRC (Classroom Complex), OAT (Open Air Theatre) and HSB (Humanities and Sciences block, which houses the Central, Physics and Chemistry lecture theatres, where freshmen courses are taught) were in fact, far more accessible to girls, with girls’ hostels occupying a more central position on the grounds.
One commentator reflects the general sentiment among males: “This is only one example of the ways in which I feel women in this nation are coddled. Most women oriented [sic] rules in the country are required for people living in rural areas where they lack education and support. But the benefits are taken by women in urban areas who I feel are more powerful than men have ever been owing to ‘protection laws’.” Among those who are against affirmative action, one group feels that such measures are no longer necessary (many of them feel that discrimination is more severe in rural areas, and seem unaware of the problems faced by urban women) and amount to reverse discrimination, whereas another group feels that these are only manifestations of existing biases (such as extra measures for the safety and ‘protection’ of girls alone), and not measures against them.
Gender-based Reservation — “It is what it is”
The question on women-only endowments and scholarships was met with mixed responses. 38.4% thought that they were not necessary while 28.7% felt that such measures were necessary because of power equations that are heavily skewed towards males. Among the former, there were many who argued that cracking the JEE was a purely individual matter based on merit and ‘talent’, and not one based on generic categories like gender. They did not seem to subscribe to the notion of social capital accrued over generations — culminating in very different kinds of upbringing and value systems for males and females — that plays a major role, apart from merit.
Many were quite vehement in their opposition — one commenter wished to encourage discussion on “the anger which has been growing up against this malpractice for years.”
There were many opinions that could not be covered by the options we provided. One such comment read ‘Reservation in any form to any one [sic] harms quality. Scholarships are a much better option’, whereas another respondent felt that reservations at the level of higher education are ineffective, and that ‘focus should be on encouraging girls at the school level.’ Yet another reflected a common opinion that the reservation system, though necessary, is improperly designed and implemented: “I believe instead of offering reservations on basis of cast [sic], creed, color or sex rather there is need to shift our viewpoint on criterion of economic disparity and thus deprive those who take unfair advantage of relaxation provided.”
The issue of elections also showed the same response trends. When asked about elections, and on how fair they are to women, 35.4% students were of the opinion that campaigning is indeed harder for women because they have fewer ‘political’ connections, whereas 26.8% of the population felt that the elections were not unfair to females as they were based on merit or equal politics. Pallavi Chakravarty, SAC speaker 2014-15, said that she had not faced any bias, and had, on the contrary, seen people coming forward to help her. She feels that the lack of political connections and biases are things that any person standing for election, whether a boy or a girl, faces. In her words, “People are willing to recognize you if you do good work. You could say that a bias exists if 10 girls stand for election and none of them win. If one girl stands and she does not win, that does not indicate a bias. So more girls need to come forward”. She added that the fact that one out of three spons coords in both Shaastra and Saarang were girls also reaffirms this. “Even then”, she concedes, “we do have a long way to go. Things will definitely improve if more girls come forward and if more guys are ready to support them.”
Stirring Up Trouble: No Gender Please!
A significant number of respondents opposed bringing up the issue of gender, saying that these were merely moves by partisan groups to stir up trouble. A few felt that the very act of acknowledging gender creates problems that are not there to begin with, dividing the community. There was a tendency to attribute the discussion of gender issues to ‘gender politics’, ‘pseudo-feminists’ or some ‘outsider’ group that does not have the community’s best interests in mind.
We Need Change — A Reason For Hope
Despite the dominant opinion that IITM had no significant role in influencing inter-gender interaction, 61.8% of the respondents felt that IITM would benefit from a more equal sex ratio. There were several comments that gave suggestions for improving the current scenario. Many were critical of the strict regulations governing entry into hostels and the segregation in mess, saying that the administration placed little or no trust in the students.
One witty commenter put it thus: “…insti rules are intrinsically patronizing towards students; treating girls like helpless sheep and boys like violent predators. For instance…when girls are in the boys hostels [for your own protection]: ‘Doors should be open at all times [because guys can’t control their impulses unless we keep an eye on them]’, ‘ID cards should be left at the reception [makes it easier for us to identify a corpse that turns up]’, ‘Don’t stay beyond X pm at night [because there are werewolves]”.
The distance between girl’s hostels and places like the IRCTC cafeteria and Guru where most non-academic interactions take place is also a problem to many, such as this respondent: “There is no place for interacting or doing a project other than in library where you are supposed to remain silent. Discussions cannot happen in silence.” They also felt that more festivals should be celebrated on an insti-wide basis, rather than inside hostels. Indeed, the recent and temporary relocation of the residents of Sharavati hostel (for female undergraduate students) to Tunga, a hostel in the boys’ hostel zone that was built to accommodate males, has been a new experience for the community. Himalaya, the mess complex for the males’ hostel zone, has begun to see significant female presence as more girls were allowed to register to the food court there, considering the distance to the girls’ mess complex.
Perhaps the newly opened ‘Quark’ — a food court-cum-informal recreational space for both male and female students — will also help improve the situation, although it is located, once again, in the middle of the boys’ hostel zone.
Compared to the scenario in many private institutes of higher education, this survey indicated that IITM is possibly more progressive in terms of gender equality. It also indicated that IITM still has a long way to go in terms of addressing the biased cultural norms that students bring with them, and ensuring that there are spaces within the institute to prevent the perpetuation and aggravation of these norms. What it established as fact is that there is a diverse community of individuals who are willing to question and discuss the issue from various standpoints — a reason for hope if any.
 “ We Need More Women in Tech: The Data Prove It”. The Atlantic. Oct 29, 2013.
 Eurostat Education Statistics. July 2011. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Education_statistics#Share_of_women_studying_maths.2C_science_and_technology
 IITM’s Student Facilities Centre, which has eateries and is a hangout spot.
 For a more spectrum-friendly survey on gender perceptions, see this article by the founder of Vannam, IITM’s LGBTQ support group.
 Inter-hostel sports event in IITM.