Women in IITs: The insiders’ perspective

Kashyapi Ghosh - Gender Equality Team

As a doctoral scholar working at the premiere Indian Institute of Technology , I had observed on several occasions the skewed gender ratio, not only in the undergraduate curriculum but also at postgraduate levels. The percentage of women is alarmingly less, creating a gender imbalance in the educational ecosystem. The problems associated with this imbalance are manifold. Social barriers in conversation between male and female students, lack of women representatives in student bodies and student organisations leading to women’s issues going under-represented. Indian Institute of Technology(IIT) at Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh being a third generation IIT with limited infrastructure and facilities became one of the institutes with the highest percentage of women( 17%) in the undergraduate programme. Despite the percentage, the active women members in representative bodies is abysmal. A majority of women shy away from being in the limelight, voicing their opinions and taking up key positions. They rarely mingle with their male classmates and prefer to remain restricted to their female classmates and friends. In common areas like the mess, classrooms, the differentiated territory of male and female students continue to exist. To understand the nature of the gender imbalances, I went back to the primary research and surveys about gender inequalities in STEM in India. Namrata Gupta (2003, 2007, 2012) has done extensive research on women in science and engineering with respect to IITs, private engineering colleges and women scientists. She has elaborately delineated the major reasons behind this number using the sociological concept of “patrifocality” enunciated by Mukhopadhyay and Seymour(1994). Patrifocality is a societal situation in which the male head of the family takes all the significant decisions involving the family including those of children’s educational choices. In this article I use the concept of patrifocality to understand the nature of equality.


The latest All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report suggests that India’s gender gap has narrowed in comparison with the past few years. Female students now constitute almost half (48.6%) of the total enrolment in higher education. Yet when we look at IITs, the premiere institutes of the country, the difference is glaring. To understand the gender inequality, I decided to run a small pilot study. I conducted short informal, semi-structured interviews with male and female students. Deploying the snowball sampling technique, I aimed to understand what the students themselves think of this skewed gender ratio and the nature of their understanding of such a deep seated problem. I analyse the concept of patrifocality in correspondence to the answers given by them.

Robert K. Merton (1973)in his norms of science analyses the ‘universalism’ of science and the aspect of science that allows anyone with the skill sets (irrespective of gender, ethnicity, class) to participate in the scientific movement. However, when I talked to the students in their hostel rooms, at the mess, the story that unfurled was quite different from what I had expected or what Merton imagined.


After the initial theoretical groundwork, I randomly talked to students residing at the campus asking them questions, recording their answers with their consent to understand the way they see these inequalities. The snowball sample had students from all levels of education; undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral. There were doctoral students in their initial year of research as well as in their final years. The conversations were often long-winded and meandered in different directions. Due to the limitation of space, I take up a few and align them to the concept of patrifocality. Hailing from a middle class family based in West Bengal, facing zero discrimination in my daily life I had assumed that most middle class families work in a similar manner. Anshula ( name changed on request), a final year BTech girl student, talked about the constraints faced by an average South Indian girl. I was shocked to know that one of her classmates was married before she could complete her tenth standard exams. She also made a passing reference to the laid back nature of the South Indian family to send their girl children for higher-education. Another student mentioned that parents are not keen to send their children far away from home due to safety reasons, cultural differences and it depends quite a lot on the family background. The readiness of the family to support beyond their comfort zone can be a game-changer for women’s education. Since she hails from Andhra Pradesh, she chose IIT Tirupati as a matter of convenience. Merely qualifying the entrance was not the only criteria, the institute should also be in the vicinity of your hometown as she mentions in her conversation.

To contrast these opinions, I asked similar questions to a final year BTech male student who seized the opportunity to explain in detail the reasons for such inequalities. He made visible hand gestures and explained how it is part of the Indian culture which hasn’t given a lot of thought in empowering women. He also mentioned that women are more encouraged towards biology instead of engineering; engineering being a male domain. He made his stance clear that reservation doesn’t help the cause of women but it takes them backward. He believes that the image of a woman is such that strength needs to be given externally to her. He doesn’t allow me to record his conversation and while I am taking scattered notes of the conversation, he mentions there are not enough women professors to pave the way for a younger generation of students. This particular sentence pauses my frantic note-taking to understand the depth and legitimacy of his statements.

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This meanders me to another conversation I had with a female doctoral student whose department had a 50-40 male/female ratio posing no question of gender imbalance. Yet, one of her points during the course of the conversation was the invisibility of female professors in her department. Her department had no permanent female faculty which gave her minimal motivation to apply for premiere institutions like IITs. When I probe her more about the possible reasons for such a situation, she understands the female biological clock and the societal norms as the villain behind such a no-show. She tells in detail how her subject is a competitive field which requires an average of a 3 year post-PhD experience (preferably post-doctoral experience) which clashes with the timeline of marriageable age, biological clock making it difficult for a woman to pursue a career in higher education. According to a conversation with Fanny von Heland, Innovation and Science Counsellor, Head of Office of Science & Innovation, Embassy of Sweden in The Hindu Business Line, “About 43 per cent of science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in India may be women, which is the highest in the world, but women’s share in STEM jobs in India is a mere 14 per cent, In Sweden, on the other hand, women’s share in STEM degrees and jobs are 35 and 34 per cent”. The reasons for such dwindling numbers could be any of the reasons mentioned above. As a person from a non-STEM background, I understand that mechanical engineering is a male dominated field due to the involvement of heavy machinery, a first year doctoral researcher gently cuts me short citing how civil engineering has heavier work like casting beam etc. A female faculty ( who was not interviewed for this survey) mentioned in one of her administrative meetings that she cast a heavy beam during her doctoral research despite the inside jokes from her male peers. These inequalities observed at different levels are almost always perpetrated through patrifocality and patriarchal thoughts reinforced by a sense of majority.

Another postgraduate research student who is the only female student in her department during the conversation opened up about the inequalities faced by her at the experimental laboratory. Though she never experienced discrimination from her supervisor, she often felt subtle nuances of it from her fellow classmates during the initial phase of the laboratory setup. A final year doctoral student whom I happened to meet in between her experiments was eager to talk to me about the inequalities in STEM. She agrees that patrifocality is one the primary reasons women cease to have equal numbers in STEM. However, her father played a major role in her enrolling for a doctoral degree. In a prolonged conversation, she allowed me to understand the dynamics of her research laboratory where her supervisor often appreciated her male colleagues more than her. She feels that women are scolded more often and have low self-esteem at work. However, one big takeaway from her journey was the fact that she could in her own sphere inspire a handful of women to take up the mammoth task of standing up for themselves. Hailing from a village, she gets several inquiries from neighbours asking about higher education and future prospects of it.


The primary aim of this article is to understand the students’ view on the skewed gender ratio and their experiences of inequalities. Almost 90% of the students interviewed agreed on the fact that the gender imbalance has its root in patrifocality. This is a pilot study grounded at a particular educational institution without considering the markers of caste, class etc. There is scope for more research in multiple intersections of caste, class and social background in an array of CFTIs ( Centrally Funded Technical Institutions). It can be further diversified to understand the representation of the third gender and other similar intersections. Gender equality is fifth in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals though it is a long, winding path for India, it is quite an attainable goal. India’s global gender gap index stands at a dismal 140 among 156 countries. IITs being institutes under the Ministry of Education, Government of India must become exemplary in these reforms for the rest of the country to follow. The idea of equality just like charity must begin at home. The home as well as educational institutes will be significant in ridding the chains of patrifocality and promoting empowerment among women.


Kashyapi Ghosh is currently working as a PhD scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Tirupati. She completed her Masters in English Literature from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. She loves poetry and is fascinated by languages

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