The abysmal number of girls making it into the top ranks of the IIT JEE Advanced examination — just 14A girls in the top 500, 46 in the top 1000, 410 in the top 5,000 and 3,000 in the top 25,000 — reveal the gaping gender divide in technical education. The HRD ministry has responded with a gender diversity plan, adding 800 more seats reserved for girls to ensure at least 14% girls in every programme.
The numbers are not surprising. For long, some of the traditional engineering fields like mechanical engineering were considered a male domain because they involved outdoor or factory floor work. Studies have shown that in societies where women and men occupy an equal position in society, such as Sweden and Norway, girls actually perform better than boys in maths. In regions like India, it is common to note that girls outperform boys in verbal skills but fall behind in maths.
The comparative performance of boys and girls in humanities, sciences and mathematics at Class 10, 12 and entrance examinations is used to buttress this argument. However, the role of social conditioning cannot be ruled out. Merely increasing seats at IITs without tackling such stereotypes will not increase the number of girls attempting JEE. Only 2.7 lakh females took the test this year against 6.5 lakh males, while 7.46 lakh girls took the NEET exam against only 5.8 lakh males. These point to fundamental social and cultural biases, perceptions and preferences in the approach to school education where change must begin.
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