The President of India Ramnath Kovind last week, hosting directors of top scientific institutes in the country said that "Women make Science humane". These top institutions are however a lonely place for women, with less female counterparts and lesser female role models and mentors to reach out to during times of personal distress.
Data submitted by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) - Madras, to the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) for 2018-19 reveals that only about one in ten students at the undergraduate level are women. While the statistics marginally improve over postgraduate courses, it staggers at best with 18 per cent of the three-year post graduate courses being women. That is still less than two women in every ten students.
Female teachers and students from the institution Express spoke to said, while they do not face overt gender discrimination at the institution, the culture remains largely male dominated. In wake of the alleged suicide of Fathima Latheef, a post-graduate student of department of Humanities, IIT - Madras, Express looked at the gender ratio of IIT Madras and spoke to its stakeholders on how this poor gender ratio affects their everyday life.
In the academic year 2018-19, the percentage of women was 12.96 per cent in the undergraduate courses, 12.84 per cent in the 2-year post-graduate and 18.73 per cent in the 3-year PG course. The trends for the academic year 2016-17 were similar. The gender ratio at the Ph D level was unavailable to Express for this academic year. And no data was available for the academic year 2017-18, despite writing to the institution.
Even as country-level gender ratio across all the IITs five years ago using the same source showed that only 9 per cent of UG students, 19 per cent of PG students and 27 per cent of PhD students were female and only 11 per cent of the faculty members were women.
Female students at IIT- Madras told Express that while they are not at receiving end of overt discrimination or misogynistic comments, they still felt left out as the culture is largely male-dominated. "For example, majority of class toppers are male students. This is because, problem solving is done first at the tutorial sessions by peer-learning, then students reach out to teacher assistance and finally mentors to seek clarifications. It is easier for guys to solve a large number of problems together. Their access to the top-five students is easier. This way since girls are smaller in number, it is difficult to crack that competitive social network," said a female student studying in the penultimate year of a 5-year UG course at IIT Madras.
She said that as time goes by, female students get used to the male-dominated atmosphere in classes and "adapt" to it. She, however, added that in departments which have better gender ratio, this problem is less common. "Students have many common lectures which cut across the department. Sometimes it helps expand their network, but mostly they get used to the poor gender ratio," she said.
Students also added that the number of female mentors or friendly-faculty members who are easily accessible are abysmally low at the institute. "It is easier to access a male faculty at the institute for informal discussions as opposed to female ones. Usually, female faculty members are low in a number and have a lot more to deal with because of that. Many of them also have to juggle between home and work, making them less accessible after college-hours for informal discussions," said a student from the humanities department, on condition of anonymity.
A senior engineering faculty member from IIT-Madras concurred with the student's theory and said that it "is unfortunate but true" that women are still the primary care-takers at home; and therefore female faculty members do spend more time on house-hold affairs than their male counterparts, who have that time to focus on academics and student-interaction. She said that the recruitment procedure, however, was fair and did not deliberately rule out women for faculty positions.
The faculty argued that even as the gender ratio was poor, female students showed equivalent performance as male students on average. "Once female students make it into the system, their participation in most activities are on par with male students," she asserted ruling out that the culture at the institution was to blame for the poor gender ratio.
Another younger female faculty from the institute, said that one cannot however ignore that entry of female students into the system is bottle-necked by regressive patriarchy. "Most of the students who make to IIT, have taken coaching classes. The number of parents that spend extra for a girl child's career is really low. Further, many parents do not want to send their female children far away from them, so, many female students do not even attempt writing the entrance exam. So the ones who do make it into the system have to be extremely competitive," she said.
V Geetha a feminist scholar said that the western stereotype that women are inferior to men at mathematics and sciences, does not work in India and the rest of South Asia as women generally performed well in these subjects. "While I do not know if these institutions are lonely places for women, the question I have is, are these places welcoming to female students?" she asked.
The families, who can aid female students make to such institutions have a lot of expectations on their wards. Considering that there are lesser women as compared to men, they feel more pressure to perform better in order to not be reduced as the lesser sex, said Geetha. "These women find it particularly harder as they are already among a group of highly competitive individuals and are pushed to out-do their male peers even in their small collective numbers," she said pointing that this increases the stress on female students tremendously.
While the poor gender ratio, may not be a direct indicator of misogyny in these premier institutions, it is still a reminder that top scientific institutions in the country are far from conducive incubation grounds for women. In words of President Kovind, "It is a reminder of the scientific potential of our daughters that we are not adequately harnessing. This is both a social and systemic challenge — but it is our collective responsibility to overcome it."