Women in Engineering: A Comparative Study of Barriers across Nations

Traditionally, women in India have shied away from engineering and related fields. However recent trends suggest more and more females participating in the growing technology sector in India. Although this new interest might open new opportunities for females as well as Indian economy, research on women in engineering in India still remains scarce whereas underrepresentation of women in the sciences and engineering has been examined in greater depth in many other countries. Specifically, several US studies have investigated the barriers women face in a career of sciences and engineering. Literature in the U.S. identifies the presence of the "leaky pipeline," whereby women systematically drop out of the science and engineering track at various points along the education and career ladder. Is this same dynamic present for women in engineering in India, and if so, how so and to what extent?

This study analyses trends for women in engineering in India to better understand in what ways does engineering represent a space of progress for women in India and in what ways do women still remain disadvantaged? We ask where the most prominent barriers and leaks may be occurring for women in engineering in India. The growing participation of women in India's engineering colleges offers us the opportunity to examine the "leaky pipeline" at the college level, where very little prior investigation has been done. Hence, we begin our inquiry by focusing on trends in the admission and attendance of females in BTech programs throughout India. The study focuses on two major issues:

  • Environmental factors at the college level: are the same barriers and points of leakage present for women in India as in the United States? If not, where are the relevant points of leakage for aspiring female engineers in India?
  • Factors influencing the gender ratios at the top engineering schools in India and the US to investigate why the gender ratios are pegged so differently in the top institutions in the two countries.

Study Design

Two instruments were designed to collect data from on both engineering and non-engineering population at the college level- a written survey and case interviews conducted both in person and by telephone. The written survey was designed to identify common barriers and trends for women in engineering in the United States and a set of those hypothesized for India including perception of environment in the college, academic preparation, interactions with the other gender and competitiveness among others.

The sample consisted of students who have taken AMCAT, across different states and tier of colleges. A total of 2200 engineering and 2800 non-engineering candidates filled the survey and 62 candidates were interviewed. Administering the survey at AMCAT events provides a proctored test environment with serious mentality.

One-on-one in-depth case interviews with male and female engineers and non-engineers were conducted in the north and/or metro areas, with some telephonic interviews conducted with female engineers from the south. Additionally, females with an all-rural educational background were specifically sought out to gain further insight into unique barriers that such females might have faced.

Significant findings

In-college environmental barriers for female engineers in India do not exist as they do in the United States.

Studies in the United States show evidence of a "chilly climate" in engineering colleges, whereby female engineers experience isolation, psychological intimidation and loss of confidence that leads to high female dropout rates during college. In testing for these same environmental barriers in BTech programs in India, we find little evidence of any in-college environmental barriers linked to gender, and no evidence that college is a place of leakage for females in the engineering education and career path. On the other hand, there is indicative evidence that females report lower self-perception of ability and preparedness than males in India.

Females consistently report to be more confident, feel more respected and motivated than males in both engineering and non-engineering degrees.

Females in both engineering and non-engineering disciplines consistently report to be more confident, open to working with males and respected as compared to male students. In fact the female engineering students come out to be the most confident among all the groups. This not only shows lack of hostile environment for women in higher education in India, but also points to a confident new generation of women in India. It is worth investigating whether women in India show the same confidence in other contexts such as in workplace and household environments.

Selection criteria for India's top engineering colleges, namely high discrete cut-off on tests scores, leave capable females engineers systematically disadvantaged in the admissions process.

We observe that the representation of females in top engineering institutions in India is much lower than that in the US top engineering schools. The most likely explanation for the high male-female ratios in India's top engineering colleges is the use of high discrete cut-off on tests scores in the selection criteria (apart from weak self-selection effects). If the test itself and selection through high cut off test scores is not changed in any way, then the American lesson is that top-tiered engineering programs will remain stagnant with MFR's of 7:1, or thereabouts, at best. Given that there is little evidence that the standardized admission tests, both in India and the US, have strong correlation to engineering success, a high cutoff on these test scores is unwarranted. A comparison of the selection process with U.S. top engineering colleges shows that a more holistic selection process may even the playing field for capable female candidates. Policymakers should focus on expanding the parameters used as selection criteria to identify India's most capable female talent and not just depend on scores of a written test. As soon as the test and selection process are fixed, and ratios can begin to improve, then we should begin to see improvements in other factors such as self-selection and improvement in the general confidence of young aspiring females, their parents and society. While this may be an optimistic view, it is likely that changing the test not only will have the capacity to improve MFR's immediately but also to start a virtuous cycle of positive feedback loops in other factors influencing the participation of India's most capable females in engineering.

Conclusion

The evidence and data available suggest some factors like self selection, lack of coaching preparation available to female engineering aspirants, might contribute to the high Male-Female Ratio in engineering campuses. However it is quite evident that the most dominant and controllable barrier is the test itself and its function as the primary selection criterion for top-notch institutions. If the test itself and selection through high cut off test scores is not changed in any way, then the American lesson is that top-tiered engineering programs will remain stagnant with Male-Female Ratio of 7:1, or thereabouts, at best.

To open more opportunities for young aspiring females who wish to join technology courses in India, we recommend that IIT's and other premier institutions expand their selection criteria to include other parameters besides test scores alone. More steps like a larger test selection pool followed by interviews, as India's own IIM's use in the selection process, may enable candidates to show other skills besides the rote learning that is required in preparation for the JEE. Further, IIT's could also employ aspects of the School of Planning and Architecture application process, which uses a qualifying exam to identify a larger pool of candidates, who then gain admission based on a portfolio of previous work, statement of purpose and interview.

Any of these steps will begin to open the door for more capable female candidates to receive the consideration they deserve. These improvements are not only a question of fairness, but also one of efficiency. Without making room for the wide range of talent available to India's engineering sector, India remains limited in its capacity for innovation. Hence, having more capable females in top-notch institutions can improve the health of India's engineering sector and the landscape of future innovation.

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