GIRLS are less capable than boys of tackling competitive exams that require maths skills. Or at least that’s what the recent moves of two premier institutions, IITs and IIMs, imply.
While IIM has decided to award up to 30 ‘grace marks’ to female applicants, IIT has waived the application fee of INR 1800 for women for its upcoming entrance test, IIT JEE. These are actions that have sparked protest: Male aspirants are livid about the unfair advantage given to females. So much for feminism, they say, women still use their gender to gain advantage. Girls, on the other hand, are indignant and say awarding “grace marks” and giving them a free form to sit a test undermines their capacity.
Clearly, these decisions have been taken with the idea of improving the skewed sex ratio in IITs and IIMs. But the idea that giving women an extra edge in this manner will solve the problem is both shortsighted and simplistic. For until the question of why females are turning their backs on management and technical careers is answered, real solutions won’t emerge.
The point is that girls are at par with boys academically.
They can score more than 90 per cent in the CBSE class 12 exams and are capable of cracking any exam they want to. Talk to anyone who runs a maths or chartered accountancy tutorial bureau and they will confirm that the girls do much better than the boys.
DESPITE their obvious potential, hardly any girls choose careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM for short).
Many research studies have been devoted to finding out why: Is the idea that ‘girls can’t do maths and physics’ based on sexism — a social and cultural construct — or is there a biological reason for this? The latest theory is that girls whose heads are filled with notions of love and marriage subconsciously steer away from such careers as they think these make them unattractive to men and conflict with traditional romantic scripts and gender norms. Another study says that biology leads women to choose teaching and PR careers and men to build cars and fly airplanes.
So when female babies are exposed to high doses of male hormones in the womb, they reject Barbie dolls in favour of trucks! We can’t reject these ideas outright, but when it comes to ability, there’s simply no doubt that women can tackle maths as well as men. You don’t have to look too far for proof: Three young Indian women made history by obtaining the top three All India positions in this year’s chartered accountancy exams, considered incredibly tough tests. The percentage of females who passed the exams (21.1 %) was also higher than the males (19.8%).
Despite this evidence, however, parents, teachers and even society continue to undermine the female capacity to take on technical careers, a “stereotype threat” that can be blamed for holding women back. Change this attitude, and expect to see more women enrolling in IITs.
There’s no dearth of evidence on how much cultural conditioning and social expectation can influence women’s capacity and confidence, virtually eliminating gender differences.
Recently, a researcher from University of California set out to test the mathematical skills of two tribes in India, the Khasi and Karbi. They found that women scored as well as men among the Khasis, a matriarchal society in which women are the landowners and handle money easily. Among the male dominated Karbis, however, men were 36 per cent quicker than women at solving maths puzzles, attributable to their greater education and idea that they were smarter than the women.
If we really want more girls to choose STEM careers and enroll in IITs and IIMs, then we must start gearing them up to do so right from the beginning. Parents and teachers should guide girls towards maths and technology with the same confidence as they do for boys.
Instead of grace marks and free forms, what girls need are more role models, who make technology and maths seem like trendy rather than nerdy choices. They need to be convinced that female perspectives and skills are really required in STEM careers and that they can make a real difference in advancing social and economic development.