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


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!


  1. Aspiring Minds Report, 2011. “National Employability Report, Engineering Graduates, Annual Report 2011
  2. American Society of Engineering Education, 2009. “
  3. Thomson Reuters Foundation,2012. “
  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

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

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