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Engineering Is a Man’s Field: Changing a Stereotype with a Lesson from India

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Percent endorsement by males and females in India on the kind of environment they experience in college. Courtesy of Aspiring Minds.

Among rude people, the women are generally degraded; among civilized people they are exalted.

—James Mill, The History of British India

Two years back, we were putting together a report on the employability (job-readiness) of engineering students in India based on the results of AMCAT, a job-skills test my company and I developed (Aspiring Minds Report, 2011 (pdf). While comparing the employability of males and females, our attention was drawn to the gender ratio in engineering courses. We were surprised to find that India has a much lower (better) male-to-female ratio (as compared with the U.S., that is, engineering male-female ratio in India is 1.96 as compared with 4.61 in the U.S. (American Society of Engineering Education, 2009).  Interestingly, India does much better than the West on this dimension of gender equity despite being ranked 19th in gender equity among the G20 countries (Thomson Reuters Foundation, 2012). This took us back to Amartya Sen, who has argued that gender equity depends on context and could vary drastically among different contexts in the same region (Amartya Sen, 2001).

Poor gender ratio in science and engineering has been a big concern in the U.S. and has been studied in detail by Elaine Seymour of the University of Colorado and Suzanne Brainard of the University of Washington, among others. They identified the presence of a “leaky pipeline” (Seymour, 2002) in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) programs, where by women systematically drop out of the STEM track at various points along the education. For instance, in 2010, 30 percent of enrolled students in engineering programs were female, but only 18.5 percent received degrees. Specifically, research identified the existence of a “chilly climate” (Seymour 1995, Brainard 1998) for females in engineering colleges. Females reportedly experienced feelings of isolation, lack of respect from male classmates and faculty, and a lack of confidence leading eventually to their dropping out. This chilly climate is one reason among others that also prevents females from opting for engineering studies.

We became curious to find out whether such a chilly climate existed for females enrolled in engineering courses in Indian higher education institutions and how it varied for females in non-engineering disciplines. Together with an intern pursuing Masters in Public Policy from Duke University, we embarked on a study that recently culminated in a detailed report on cross-country comparison of gender equity in engineering education (Aspiring Minds Report, 2013, pdf).

We started by putting together a survey to identify potential barriers experienced by students in pursuing and continuing education. The survey contained questions such as: “Did you ever feel left out in an academic setting?”,“Rate your agreement to the following: When working in groups, I find that my peers respect my intelligence.” and “Rate your agreement to the following: I am confident in my abilities to succeed in my place of study.”This survey was administered to a stratified sample of 2,200 engineering students and 2,800 non-engineering students across India when they took the AMCAT. Some of these students were also subsequently interviewed.

To our surprise, we found that females in engineering in India emerged as the most confident group and felt more comfortable in their environment as compared with male engineers and all non-engineering students (Refer to Figure 1 and Table 1 of Aspiring Minds Report, 2013, pdf). Even within the non-engineering set, females consistently reported to be facing lesser barriers than males. For instance, 7.84 percent of female engineers and 19.28 percent ofmale engineers reported feeling isolated, whereas 17.38 percent of female non-engineers and 28.03 percent of male non-engineers reported it. In contrast, 51.8 percent of female engineers in their senior year reported isolation in the U.S. (Brainard, 1998). Similarly, 96.15 percent of female engineers and 91.53 percent of male engineers in India found themselves respected by their peers, 3.49 percent of males and 11.59 percent of females reported a preference for same-gender study groups.

It was only in the self-perception of ability that we found some evidence of females rating themselves lower than males of similar abilities. Among the top 10 percent scorers in mathematical ability (based on AMCAT) among engineers, 63.33 percent of males and 51.72 percent of females rated themselves as being among the top 10 percent in math ability. This difference, however, went away as soon as we looked at the top 25 percent of scorers, where larger proportion of females reported themselves in the top 25 percent. The effect seems to exist just at the very top.

In my mind, the big takeaway from this study is the emergence of a new confident Indian woman in context of higher education. In a country wrought with gender disparity, this is a very encouraging finding, even if it is the result of self-selection. It will be very useful to study if such gender equity is also observed in other contexts such as the workplace or household. On the other hand, it would be insightful to understand the many barriers which girls in high-schools in India may face to pursue higher education, specifically engineering. I have personally been audience to some anecdotal evidence, a discussion on which goes well beyond the scope of this post.

Another interesting angle to explore is the difference in perception of engineering in India versus the West as a career path paying rich dividends. In India, engineering (specifically information technology) is an extremely popular undergraduate degree, given the large number of well-paying jobs in that field. My intuition is that females in India don’t look at studying engineering as a female doing a man’s job (an opinion which many in the West argue is the case) but see it as a bread-earner pursuing a path of socio-economic success. Different identities become dominant in the context of engineering in different nations, enabling females to defeat popular stereotypes.

Although there are many more questions to explore and answer, the good news for now is that females do not face a chilly climate inengineering education in India. Not only has the community created a conducive environment for women in higher education, but women have also emerged as being confident.To top it, our analysis finds that males and females in engineering colleges are equally employable. This is good news, as both the engineering profession and the Indian woman can symbiotically progress in a country wanting for high quality engineers and IT personnel.

Finally, I will leave you with a puzzle. Whereas India does much better than the U.S. in the gender ratio in engineering, the story turns upside down when we look at, say, the top 10 colleges in both countries. Whereas the Indian Institute of Technology have a male-female ratio as high as 14:1, M.I.T. has it around 1.4! Wondering why? Wait for another report on this!

References

  1. Aspiring Minds Report, 2011. “National Employability Report, Engineering Graduates, Annual Report 2011
  2. American Society of Engineering Education, 2009. “http://it-jobs.fins.com/Articles/SB130221786789702297/Women-Engineering-Graduates-at-15-Year-Low
  3. Thomson Reuters Foundation,2012. “http://it-jobs.fins.com/Articles/SB130221786789702297/Women-Engineering-Graduates-at-15-Year-Low
  4. Amartya Sen, 2001. “The Many Faces of Gender Inequality” The New Republic (2001)
  5. Seymour, 2002. Seymour, Elaine. “Tracking the Processes of Change in US Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology.” Science Education Vol. 79 (2002): 79-104.
  6. Seymour, Elaine. “The Loss of Women from Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Undergraduate Majors: An Explanatory Account.” Science Education Vol. 79 Issue 4 (1995): 437-473.
  7. Brainard, Suzanne G. and Carlin, Linda. “A Six-Year Longitudinal Study of Undergraduate Women in Engineering and Science.” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 87, No 4 (1998) 369-375.
  8. Aspiring Minds Report, 2013. “Women in Engineering: A comparative study of barriers across Nations
Varun Aggarwal About the Author: Varun Aggarwal did his masters in electrical engineering and computer science at M.I.T. In 2007, he co-founded Aspiring Minds, a standardized assessment company to foster greater efficiency in the Indian employment and education market. Aspiring Minds' assessment platform, AMCAT, include state-of-art spoken English assessment, simulation-based programming assessment and empirically validated practical-intelligence assessments other than standardized adaptive assessments. Aspiring Minds research has been featured in The Economist and Wall Street Journal among other media. Varun specifically looks after product design, research and reach out to entry-level job seekers. He is also the co-founder of CURE, an organization that works against ragging (hazing) in India. Follow him on Twitter: @varaggarwal

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 10 Comments

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  1. 1. vipladav 1:44 pm 10/24/2013

    ‘To our surprise, we found that females in engineering in India emerged as the most confident group and felt more comfortable in their environment as compared with male engineers and all non-engineering students’

    The point you are missing is the difference between the environment of University and outside it in India. A college or university in India is much better place for a woman to be than outside it. There is drastic difference between how a woman is treated inside a college campus and outside of it in India.
    Any Indian woman who makes it to a college would never drop out. World outside of college campus is very cruel place for a woman to be in India.
    American universities are better for women than their Indian counterparts. But atmosphere outside the campus is almost same as inside it for an American woman.

    College is a very liberating experience for an Indian woman who faces constant harassment, discrimination.

    Link to this
  2. 2. rkipling 3:09 pm 10/24/2013

    vipladav,

    It sounds like you have personal experience with this topic. Your points are in agreement with everything I have read or heard on this subject.

    When I raised these same issues on another Indian blogger’s site, I was called a racist troll (Probably some other names I can’t remember. He took down his most insulting replies along with my comments.) I was banned from commenting on that blog and he suggested all other bloggers ban me as well. Each blogger may moderate their blog as they like, but since the particular topic dealt with understanding distinctions between physical abuse and verbal or situational abuse, I thought my comments were relevant. As I recall, I referred to the general situation in India as culturally based, not that it had a genetic or racial genesis. Further, I have said many times in replies to commenters who make distinctions between races, that all human beings alive today are so genetically similar that it seems highly unlikely any particular race could be considered superior to any other. That said, in IQ testing, people of Indian and Eastern European Jewish heritage do seem to score slightly higher than everyone else.

    Your interpretation of the data seems a bit different than that of the writer. It will be interesting to see if this comment is deemed racist as well.

    Link to this
  3. 3. julia smith 3:47 pm 10/24/2013

    Anybody interested in this subject should see http://vimeo.com/19707588, the documentary that led the Nordic Council of Ministers to close down the Nordic Gender Institute. Scientific American should stick to science, rather than pseudoscience.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jtdwyer 5:34 pm 10/24/2013

    I don’t know anything about it – I have somewhat diminished social skills, and for several decades didn’t realize that others do not always reason as I do. I thought that both the article and the video (what I could sit still for) recommended by julia smith were both quite interesting.

    I have to wonder, though: don’t hormonal levels statistically vary between the genders, and don’t they significantly affect thoughts and behaviors? What is the science on gender biological distinctions vs. societal and cultural influences?

    I hate to be picky, but there were quite a few grammatical violations (editing errors) in the article, such as:
    [study.”This]
    [setting?”,“Rate]
    [confident.To]

    Very interesting topic, but I’m afraid it’s too complex for me…

    Link to this
  5. 5. rkipling 4:07 pm 10/25/2013

    rkipling,

    Your comment does not offend or seem racist to me. I question the motives of the other blogger.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Arun 7:01 pm 10/25/2013

    The difference I typically see is one of culture. It’s one thing that seemed awkward to me whenever we visit India from the States – there’s a different take on intelligence. In the States it seems to often be paired with ‘geek’ culture, and that really isn’t present so much in India. I forgot if the study was on this site or another, but it talked about how women showed more interest in science once the geeky-male/comic book environment was removed.

    Obviously there’s a lot of other reasons, but I think that’s a major factor. We have pre-perceptions of things that either allow/disallow us to imagine ourselves in a ‘role’ better, and that changes not only with our location but our time as well. For example, ‘programming/calculating’ was a feminine activity during WW2 in America, men were the first to wear high heels, women invented beer & beer culture, etc., etc., etc. That’s all changed very much today in parts of the world.

    Another thing to consider is the viability of cultural/biological differences at all anymore. What I mean is, is that once you understand why you do/don’t do something (in terms of supposed gender differences due to biology), then the precedent to not follow it anymore is now a possibility. It’s crawling out of your stereotype in other words.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Arun 7:11 pm 10/25/2013

    What would also be interesting is studying the interests of those who identify as neither gender or as another gender entirely, like hijras.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Arun 7:59 pm 10/25/2013

    “Anybody interested in this subject should see http://vimeo.com/19707588, the documentary that led the Nordic Council of Ministers to close down the Nordic Gender Institute. Scientific American should stick to science, rather than pseudoscience.”

    That’s pretty easy to disassemble, and not just because it’s only talking about one area of the world. The key factor in determining a “gender role” in humans is either the absence of another sex or the absence of hostility directed towards them. Repeat the absence of men in the USA during WW2, except on a larger scale – where there would be nothing ‘but’ women left to fill in roles, and see what happens then.

    In other words, there is no such thing as a ‘good gender study’. You can’t have one unless you completely eliminate one sex out of the testing environment (which, is, the world). That’s not happening of course, unless there’s some huge eventual shift in our evolution, or science invents some other way to reproduce instead (and sexes fade away), etc.

    The “absence” factor is particularly stronger for women who want to delve into areas that are dominated by a sex that’s physically larger and stronger than them/dangerous environment. For men it’s more of about ridicule/doing a “woman’s job”, as in the case of male nurses

    Basically, it’s all about the context. Interest is something that evolves in new scenarios, and of course, something that varies from individual to individual. It’s also something that develops over large spans of time, not just a few decades.

    Link to this
  9. 9. soniabatra 3:11 am 03/19/2014

    It appears like you’ve got personal expertise with this subject.
    In today’s time when competition is at its peak, no matter what you are studying, whether its arts, commerce, science, or planning to make your career in medicine, law or engineering streams, you’ll have to consider all the possibilities in advance so that you can manage your moves accordingly.Higher studies are becoming crucial and selecting where to study is perhaps one of the most important decisions you’ll ever take in your life. Hence, these lists of Best Engineering Colleges help getting an idea of what these universities have to offer and whether you want to with their terms and conditions or not.
    Talking of engineering colleges in India, some names that often come to our minds are Chitkara University, Punjab University, Guru Nanak Dev University, Thapar University, Chandigarh Engineering College, and many more in the list. Graduating from these premier institutes makes you a gem to the Multi-national companies and you come up with a status symbol in the society as well.

    Link to this
  10. 10. soniabatra 3:13 am 03/19/2014

    It appears like you’ve got personal expertise with this subject.
    In today’s time when competition is at its peak, no matter what you are studying, whether its arts, commerce, science, or planning to make your career in medicine, law or engineering streams, you’ll have to consider all the possibilities in advance so that you can manage your moves accordingly.Higher studies are becoming crucial and selecting where to study is perhaps one of the most important decisions you’ll ever take in your life. Hence, these lists of Best Engineering Colleges help getting an idea of what these universities have to offer and whether you want to with their terms and conditions or not.
    Talking of engineering colleges in India, some names that often come to our minds are Chitkara University, Punjab University, Guru Nanak Dev University, Thapar University, Chandigarh Engineering College, and many more in the list. Graduating from these premier institutes makes you a gem to the Multi-national companies and you come up with a status symbol in the society as well.
    More sourceful information at http://chitkara.edu.in/overview/punjab

    Link to this

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