Photo: IIT Delhi.
The problem at hand was simple: there aren’t enough women in the IITs. There wasn’t even a large enough population of women attempting to get into the IITs. This was obviously no reflection on calibre, or anything of the sort: the median CGPA of girls in IIT Delhi was nearly 1 point higher than the median for boys, as of 2012. Yet numbers dwindled and the IITs had to act. An 8% representation of women was simply unacceptable.
Thus came the “cure”: supernumerary seats – i.e. seats in addition to the existing lot – reserved for women. It was a way to balance the multiple barriers that stand in the way of the average woman compared to the average man. To that effect, the expectations set on this cure were high. From the ground-up, it was an attempt to create a positive cycle whereby the social barriers that exist could be broken.
First, the aim was to increase the number of women taking admission into IITs once they had cleared the JEE Advanced test. In the past, 12% percent of the 20% of women that cleared the JEE Advanced wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity at hand due to various hidden social pressures. The introduction of this quota was meant to break this trend and to improve the number of women actually joining IITs. In the long term, the goal was to break the social stigma around women in traditionally male dominated branches of study, like mechanical or civil engineering.
Second, the aim was to improve the number of women attempting the exam in the first place. The hidden shackles of social pressures and issues at coaching could be defeated by the incentive of ‘going to an IIT’, which the scheme created. In the long term, by creating more role models in the field, the scheme meant to create a culture that could encourage young women.
Finally, the supernumerary scheme was meant to create a better, more open environment in the institutes themselves. With more peer interaction for women and the benefit of more perspective into the problems that exist, the IITs could create social change through technology. Every woman who enrolled at the college would be able to “fit in” and find a peer group with similar interests more easily. More open cross-gender interactions wouldn’t hurt either. Sexism in both professional and non-professional settings continues to be a real problem for IITs, and the scheme attempted to do its part in enforcing more interaction at younger ages.
As with any cure, the supernumerary scheme also had side-effects. The primary one was the uproar from male candidates who felt they were losing their seats to ‘undeserving’ candidates. While the semantics of how the scheme works lends itself to such a debate, it wasn’t worth engaging in. The reality is that this point of view exists and this means a certain regret and hostility towards women availing the scheme, and it’s the effect of this hostility that should concern us.
2020 was the third year of the supernumerary scheme, and we attempted to assess how the slowly increasing number of women at the IITs has changed experiences related to coaching, admissions, life at the IITs (including relationships with professors), teaching and laboratory assistantships, and interactions with peers. We also considered the stigma that the supernumerary scheme is often accompanied by, and looked at how well the scheme has achieved its rather lofty goals.
Before the hallows of IIT
The two or more years leading up to the Joint Entrance Examination, known famously as the JEE, are one of the most intense times in an IITian’s life. These years require consistent focus and hard work, and are also shaped by an aspirant’s peer group, their exposure to the right guidance and study materials, and a supportive learning environment, among other things. One of the objectives of opening up supernumerary seats was to increase the number of women appearing in the JEE Advanced exam and then opting to study at an IIT after qualifying. This choice is sensitive to the availability of role-models, the stigma around specific disciplines and engineering in general, and whether parents are willing to invest in the future of women as engineers.
“Yes, indeed, people feel inspired once they see someone achieving their goals, they feel “yeah, it is possible… If they can do it, then why can’t we”. – Aishvi, 2015 Entry
“I was aware of the lack of women at IIT because it was evident in my coaching institute as well. However, that did not discourage me personally because I knew of a couple of other women that had made it to IIT.” – Kritika, 2016 Entry
Most students agreed that the availability of role-models is essential to encouraging women and their parents to pursue education at an IIT. But the extent to which this has happened, specifically for women, remains in doubt.
“If I have to talk about my hometown, after my selection, many people contacted my parents and sent their children to coaching institutes and after that many success stories…so, yes, it’s improving every day, and I am hoping it will improve further. But it’s mostly boys and their parents who contacted us. The number of girls has increased from zero to a positive integer… So eventually I feel it will grow” – Aishvi, 2015 Entry
“I have seen the effect of the creation of role-models only through relatives and friends. My Chachu enrolled my cousin sister in the coaching institute because I too had joined one in 9th. So, in that sense, the effect can be seen. And this extends to males as well, not just females.” – Jasleen, 2016 Entry
While most agreed that there has been a positive shift thanks to the greater number of women at IITs, they also believe there is still a way to go and that more concrete effects will only become visible a few years further down the line.
“I feel that the number of girls attending IIT coaching centers in my hometown has increased. My sister is six years younger than me and went to the same coaching as I did. I remember being pleasantly surprised to see a significantly higher proportion of girls. The creation of role-models is a long-term goal. While we have made good progress, I think we have a long way to go, as it is not only about role-models at school or university level but also in careers across a diverse range of sectors. These are systemic changes and will happen over a period of time and I feel we are taking steps in the right direction.” – Aditi, 2015 Entry
Another common issue was about the perception at coaching institutes that some individual branches of study are ‘less suitable’ for women. Parents, other family members and sometimes also coaches have been known to express this opinion. A stigma around specific branches, as well as the IITs’ public perception itself, inhibits women from enrolling at IITs.
“During our counselling, our teachers were like branches like mechanical are not suitable for girls.” – Vanshika*, 2017 Entry
“This mentality persists everywhere – how girls could take up mech and civil? As such there was no issue regarding accepting seats, parents/relatives at times think that it would be tough with no or very few girls in the dept and doing all that MCP labs [work]. In our senior batch, there was only one girl initially in mech dept, so that makes girls a bit hesitant at the beginning.” – Ankita, 2017 Entry
“Luckily for me, my parents were fine with it. In fact, my mother is a mechanical eng herself. But yes, my relatives were trying to push me towards the medical field because apparently, it suited me more and I ended up taking math along with biology in 11th.” – Anushka*, 2017 Entry
“During my counselling I choose chemical over mechanical. And this was advised by my father and sisters even though they are also IITians. This was mainly because future prospects in core mechanical is sort of industry based, sometimes in remote locations. This year, one girl contacted me and was confused about choosing mechanical because of the same reasons. But after talking to 2-3 girls from mechanical, she felt more comfortable and finally took mechanical in IIT Delhi. So yes, more role models are encouraging more girls to take up mechanical – Divyanshi, 2018 Entry
“I guess it would help if we had more women in unconventional branches and so it seems like these branches are doable, because as a 17-year-old you’re impressionable and end up thinking that you should not take that risk when someone is telling you that it won’t work out.” – Anuja, 2016 Entry
Students also spoke about societal pressures opposing engineering for women, parents preferring institutes closer home, especially ones that weren’t also co-ed.
“In my coaching, in Meerut, in the non medical batch, there were 2 girls out of a 100-150, and in the medical it was more like 4-5, out of 50. I’d say this was largely because of gender roles in the town, where women were conditioned to want careers that won’t build familial pressure, or stay within the town. Other times it was just the attitude of vaise bhi shaadi karni hai (in any case, you need to get married). This came from both family, and the girl herself.” – Poorva, 2017 Entry
“Parents didn’t care enough for girls to get an engineering degree. Most of my friends were dependant on an option of going to some DU college as it is considered most convenient for girls at my place… maybe that could be one of the reasons why girls didn’t give much importance to JEE” – Savi, 2017 Entry
“I’ve noticed that girls that were living in Delhi, took up IITD even if it was biotech or textile specifically to be closer to home and so that hometown phenomena that your house is close by and put it above your branch preference are there.” – Anuja, 2016 Entry
Many agreed that an increase in the number of seats could help women opt for IITs – which the supernumerary scheme has done – thus changing general societal attitudes as well as improving the chances of women qualifying.
“There aren’t many girls getting into engineering colleges because there aren’t many opting for math after 10th, and even if they do, not all get the right coaching because maybe they don’t have a good coaching institute in their area, and they have to travel to another city.
Whatever may be the reason, without family support, getting the right resources to crack the exam is tough. With more girls in IIT, it helps with the change in the attitude of society in general, so more girls would be encouraged to take up maths in 11th”- Anushka*, 2017 Entry
“I agree with parents letting girls go to coaching classes more or even letting them take a drop year, which is very uncommon for girls because now they have a stronger chance.” – Anukriti, 2016 Entry
Another important aspect of JEE is the life inside coaching institutes – the places where students spend most of their hours every day. Here, female students are generally more comfortable interacting with other female students, and the dearth of women in ‘senior’ batches or in general has a detrimental effect on how well the women are able to prepare.
“I used to tell my teachers that I do not want to stay in alpha because there weren’t any girls and I didn’t have any friends. And the second batch had a lot of girls and so I started taking classes at beta. My family and teachers told me to go back to the alpha because I had worked very hard to get there but I was not comfortable.” – Ananya*, 2015 Entry
“It also had a negative effect on my confidence in some ways, not seeing enough women in the institutes.” – Kritika, 2016 Entry
“And when you have doubts, you wouldn’t always go to the teachers you’d try and resolve it in your peer groups, and since I was more comfortable with girls and there weren’t as many girls it came to a point where I started taking additional coaching in Kurukshetra to resolve those doubts. I later dropped it because it got too hectic. But it later got better as I made more friends in those two years. ” – Ananya*, 2015 Entry
According to our interviewees, there were more female students at coaching institutes after the supernumerary scheme was introduced. However, the quantity and quality of peer interactions didn’t improve much. This could have been because there are fewer female students in the more senior batches as well as among those more invested in performing well at the JEE.
“One disadvantage that I felt during my coaching was that since there were a small number of girls, my discussion group was limited, and at that time I was not very comfortable in asking boys doubts and stuff” – Divyanshi, 2018 Entry
“There were very few girls who were seriously competitive about the exam and were prepping to the same extent as me so I did face limitations in terms of having an extensive study group, guys usually cluster together and we feel some amount of inertia breaking into that group…” – Urvashi, 2017 Entry
“There were only 3 girls who used to be in the top 50 in the entire … centre. So because of that, it was difficult to have a circle with girls as your friends. Boys would sit and do things together all the time, which didn’t affect the academics but the bonding.” – Ayushi, 2018 Entry
Another related issue was the safety of female students travelling to and from coaching centres – in both the pre- and post-supernumerary years. This said, there is an impression that the increase in the number of women commuting to coaching centres could ameliorate this concern.
“I am from Rohtak and went to coaching in Delhi, Pitampura. There were security issues in traveling but my family managed. However, there were just 2 girls in a batch of 60 and there were no other girls from Rohtak at the time and this could be one of the reasons that they stayed behind and attended the local prep classes.” – Kritika, 2016 Entry
“The teacher would get surrounded by a herd of guys, asking doubts after the class and that used to stretch for long and when that got over, it would be too late. Also, several times, classes used to end late, which again led to those issues. I even wished I was a guy then.” – Ankita, 2017 Entry
Many interviewees also reported a general condescension and patronisation from coaching teachers towards female students, again in both pre- and post-supernumerary years. Such attitudes only reinforce the stigma around women in STEM and could further dent female aspirants’ confidence.
“I noticed a bit of a condescending attitude with me. They would break down things for everybody but it seemed like they were trying a little harder with me and that sort of came to notice.” – Anuja, 2016 Entry
“One of the teachers asked us regularly if we understood the topic, I think in their mind they were just trying to ensure that we were doing okay in the topic and weren’t lagging behind. But the specific need to ensure we (girls) weren’t lagging behind and asking it specifically to girls in a class with students who all kind of had a similar performance didn’t feel okay to me. So technically it wasn’t a problem for any of us but it was an experience.” – Shivani*, 2017 Entry
In the hostel corridors
Many conversations we had with female students suggested that they envied the prolific interactions between male senior and junior students in the men’s hostels. The students indicated a sharp difference in hostel culture between the men’s and women’s hostels. Krishna (DGsec 2019) recalled that there was very little enthusiasm from her hostel when she was competing for an elected post and had only a few rounds of discussions within her hostel rooms.
While it’s common to find junior students wandering about senior students’ quarters, such occurrences are rare in the women’s hostel. At IIT Delhi, the men’s mess environment and hostel events are both friendlier and noisier than the women’s counterparts.
“For some reason, the boys seem closer to their respective seniors, who are more in number than girls. Maybe more women could help with that. But in general, limited interaction does have a negative effect because you understand IIT mostly by advice from seniors.” – Kritika, 2016 Entry
“… and then there is a difference between the hostel cultures of boys and girls. For example, in the boys’ hostels, seniors call the juniors into their rooms and they talk all night long or they just meet in the mess and start a conversation, but here we don’t have anything [like that]. Seniors mostly keep to themselves, hence the junior-senior bonding is very low, and in my opinion it’s kind of an important aspect of college that we are missing.” – Ayushi, 2018 Entry
Indeed, many female students complained about their formal relationships with their seniors, although this issue isn’t directly related to their being fewer female students at the IIT.
“There is very little hostel bonding culture both within a year and across years and I do feel it’s helpful but absent in girls’ hostels. I am not sure if it’s because there are [fewer] girls. It could be since most girls then end up forming stronger peer groups with guys, given their abundance.” – Urvashi, 2017 Entry
These relationships are also important for female students’ representation at the Board for Sports Activities (BSA), the Board for Recreational and Creative Activities and the Co-curricular and Academic Interaction Council. Various female students from the 2015 to 2018 batches felt that fewer interactions and bonds with their hostel seniors made up one reason for their lower representation at these clubs.
“How much encouragement freshers get from hostel seniors for joining a certain club also influences their decision. I didn’t know about the Aeromodelling club until my third year, because of course there were very few seniors in my hostel who were a part of that club.” – Aditi, 2015 Entry
The supernumerary scheme has, however, led to some change on this front. With there being more female students, students report having more of them around at the clubs as well.
“For aeroclub, the overall participation has increased a lot, and I was involved as a fresher and also in the recruitment process of the incoming juniors earlier this year. I did not see any sort of discrimination towards either gender.” – Muskaan, 2018 Entry
“I’ve been involved in dramatics and have noticed an increase in the number of girls in institute teams. One of the reason is that more seniors lead to a better participation from the hostel and hence more girls are encouraged to get involved further” – Divyanshi, 2018 Entry
“When I had joined there were barely any girls in the coding clubs or other clubs, and now I think that general culture is coming more into girls’ hostels.” – Anuja, 2016 Entry
“Representation of girls in the music club significantly improved in my second year, when the 2019 batch joined the clubs. Since there are more girls now, the probability of finding interested people has automatically increased and hence it’s just easier taking part in an activity when you know there is at least one more girl with you.” – Naveli, 2018 Entry
The BSA events are influenced by the lower number of female students. There are only two women’s hostels, so at the General Championship (GC) events there is little competition. If only two hostels compete, a podium finish is a given. But in the men’s hostels, GC is one of the most-awaited and highly celebrated events of the year, and fosters many cross- and intra-year bonds, at least in the first few years.
While the supernumerary scheme has led to an overall increase in the representation of female students in most clubs, its effect is yet to be seen in the domain of sports and the inner ecosystem of female hostels.
The peer group
It is very important to understand that peer groups are formed in spaces of mutual respect and belonging. But IITs on the whole have historically had a dismal ratio of female to male students, invoking numerous problems.
“Honestly, I was unaware of the skewed gender ratio. We do not see that in schools, and how gender issues can affect us personally is opaque, at least it was to me as a child. IIT was just another exam away, and that was the target.” – Arundhati, 2015 Entry
A congenial peer-group has a crucial influence in a student’s daily life, including helping with assignments, preparing for quizzes, minors and majors, and with many aspects of campus life that require sharing, caring and supporting. In the years before the supernumerary came up, the small number of female students thus severely affected female students’ campus lives, as well as allowed casual sexist attitudes to take root.
“I was the only girl in mechanical. With boys having friends from among hostels, alienation is imminent, to begin with. I ended up making amazing friends, but that does not mean I would not have benefitted from at least one more person studying the same subjects or working on assignments as mine in the hostel.” – Arundhati, 2015 Entry
“The reality is that girls have to deal with very small peer groups, and it was a problem in the past for me, which is why I think it’s good to get more girls in. When I was in EE, I had all three peers in my hostel. Once I changed to CS, there were none. I had to go to Bharti Building or further for any semblance of help.” – Poorva, 2016 Entry
“So like whenever we went to the workshop for our work, the staff would be quite happy to see that girls are also doing this kind of work. But the seniors [often] insinuated that girls don’t do this, you may not be able to do, so let boys do this. It was quite difficult for me to adjust with the seniors already in there, they had a different mindset, kind of. Also, the environment was not [very] comfortable, due to which I left the club.” – Rupanjali*, 2018 Entry
“The Quizzing Club and Lit … had major problems. The general aura was the girls aren’t great at either of the two, the representation was very skewed and I had often noticed women being talked over by guys at QC and Lit events.” – Ragini* , 2015 Entry
“Yes! I know very few men from my batch who would not crib about girls having easier in placements, and that for me is the starting point of the roadblock in finding like-minded peers” – Samriddhi, 2015 Entry
Supernumerary seats have increased the odds of finding like-minded peers, both inside and outside of hostels, to put it mildly. A hostel study group means you don’t have to tackle assignments by yourself, or have to face “that one prof” alone. Help is just a room away.
Indeed, hostels offer the first points of contact for every fresher and facilitate the formation of peer groups through certain activities or events. Increasing the number of female students thus improves the chances of finding multiple students interested in the same club, and a subsequent sense of belonging could ensure interests evolve into commitments.
“It’s just easier taking part in an activity when you know there is at least one more girl with you.” – Naveli, 2018 Entry
The changes brought on by having supernumerary seats may not have been monumental but nonetheless they seem significant.
All of the responses pertaining to academic difficulties at departments with a low number of females came from students of the 2016 and 2017 batches. These batches didn’t have any supernumerary seats. We didn’t record any concerns voiced by the students of the 2018 batch.
As for the (very real) potential for negative consequences: we explored the possible harms of the supernumerary scheme through anecdotes from students.
A common complaint with schemes like this one, advanced in some quarters, is that those who benefit from the scheme have effectively “nicked” a seat from a more deserving candidate. And such comments are often directed at the female students themselves.
“Girls were blamed for stealing ranks.” – Priya*, 2018 Entry
“People who I thought were my close friends regularly made comments about how dumb girls are.” – Maria, 2018 Entry
“More of it appears online certainly. But there is definitely a belief that it’s easier if you’re a girl and some people make comments on the same.” – Kaavya, 2017 Entry
“No, I haven’t ever felt discriminated against directly. But I have seen comments related to that being made on social media by people I know.” – Muskaan, 2018 Entry
Being exposed to these sentiments in turn affects the students’ academic performance. While the supernerary scheme set out to improve student interactions and fight casual sexism, it’s possible that the problem has become worse. Some students reported that some people even wrote off women’s better average academic performance as being due to the fact that they are women.
“Girls go to profs and cry to get their marks increased.” – Deepika*, 2015 Entry
“For example while smoothing out the metal edges (in the MCP101 lab), they [TAs] used to come and assist girls more than guys because we didn’t do it properly and lacked the physical strength. Similarly, while working in a group the heavy machinery part was done by the guys.” – Vanshika*, 2017 Entry
“There was a sense of unfair hostility, at least personally that I felt, which was a sentiment that TAs helped me more, or I got more marks. This was probably just because I was more eloquent with my doubts, and many other boys really weren’t.” – Poorva, 2017 Entry
While such comments and attitudes are unhealthy, they can’t be dismissed off-hand. One outcome of patriarchy is sometimes a culture that implicitly patronises women – tending to help them because, men believe, the women can’t help themselves. But regardless of its root causes, the presence of such narratives could have very real effects. Female students often experience the effects in an acute way during internship and placement season.
“With respect to the [Training and Placement Office], there is an attitude that it’s easier for girls (ironic since everyone said that during third year internship, and I didn’t get a TnP one), and I am thankful I got through TnP online, where I did not have to pay attention to the snide comments that get made. The supernumerary seats thing does contribute to that sort of hostility, I feel.” – Poorva, 2017 Entry
“It is inevitable, I suppose. Something similar happens during the intern/placement season, quite evident with all the memes circulating around.” – Rekha*, 2017 Entry
“It was being aware of the fact that you came here through quota and not because of your potential. And it becomes intimidating at the start if you’re unable to cope up and one exam going wrong goes a long way. I used to spend a lot of time boosting the confidence of my female mentees but it was not easy for then. And that barrier between male and female has increased, I noticed in my 5th year. Because earlier, your male friends used to support you even if you did not do well but now I feel that the female students are afraid to ask for help because she does not have that confidence in her.” – Ananya*, 2015 Entry, on why students sometimes lacked confidence.
The name of the scheme, ‘supernumerary’, indicates that the seats for female students are an add-on, so the idea that they have stolen their seats – however illegitimate – is also misdirected. If there are more female students, it’s simply because they were higher on the rank list. “Why then should they have the extra seats, the advantage, the quota?” Simple: it’s not an advantage but an adjustment of sorts to ‘balance out’ the hidden disadvantages an average female aspirant faces.
Ultimately, it’s not hard to imagine that people may warm up to the idea if misinformation is dispelled and casual sexism is eliminated.
* Name changed to protect identity.
This article was originally published by the Board for Student Publications, IIT Delhi. It has been republished here with permission, and with light edits for style and clarity.