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Dearth, Distance & Discouragement: Behind the Underwhelming Participation of Women in Sports at IITD

Sports activities have been an integral part of life in IITD for a long time. The BSA grounds are perpetually bustling with the energy and fervour of the passionate sportspersons playing their favourite sports. Since the introduction of the supernumerary seats for women in 2017, the proportion of women on campus has drastically increased. The scheme was modified in 2021, allowing each IIT to autonomously decide the number of seats reserved for women while ensuring a minimum enrollment of 20%. However, this change has not yet percolated to the sports community at IITD, and the participation of women in sports in the institute continues to be significantly low. Be it the lack of incentives or the stereotypical gender roles imposed by society, many systemic issues have led to an inhibitory atmosphere for the improvement of women’s participation in sports activities.

BSP decided to delve deeper into this alarming issue by finding its primary causes. In our investigation, we approached the students to determine the reasons behind the problem and the steps taken to improve the situation. We inquired the administration and the Board for Sports Activities (BSA) about their roles in changing the status quo and the progress being made in encouraging more women to participate.

As we enhanced our knowledge of the fundamental barriers to the participation of women, we came across some facts that we had expected, some thoughts that we could rationalise and other simply troubling opinions. From the myriad of viewpoints that we gathered, we could finally paint a comprehensive picture of the matter.

The Status Quo

To gain a deeper insight into the sub-optimal participation of women in sports, we conducted a survey that received 167 responses, a majority (54.7%) of which were from people who identified as female. We reached out to students, sports captains, coaches and the administration as well in an effort to understand the various factors that come into play and to begin developing a feasible solution.

One of the biggest problems faced by women looking to venture into sports at IIT is that there is a significant lack of incentive for them. This opinion was mirrored by 52% of the survey respondents, who identified this as a primary reason for the lower participation of women. Sports like cricket, hockey, football and weightlifting do not have a women’s team and are not a part of the prestigious Inter-IIT tournament. With no official team and no competitive matches, many people find no encouragement to play the sport of their choice in IITD. For example, a limited number of cricket games are held annually, which isn’t enough to garner interest in the sport. The recent establishment of the women’s football team is a step in the right direction; however, there is still a long way to go before the team is made official at the institute and Inter-IIT levels.

Another prominent issue that we identified was the distance of the sports facilities from the girls’ hostels, particularly the volleyball and lawn tennis courts, and the Student Activity Center (SAC), which houses indoor sports like swimming, badminton, table tennis, squash etc. Many of the people we interviewed and surveyed suggested that the long commute is fatiguing and time-consuming, acting as a deterrent for those interested in playing these sports. Extended practices held in the latter half of the day, along with the long commute, often make it difficult for them to have their dinner in the mess.

Furthermore, we also noticed that the lack of women coaches presents itself as an issue. Almost 40% of the respondents felt that some female players do not feel comfortable confiding in male coaches about missing practice due to menstruation, among other topics.

Some of the issues we recognised resonated strongly with all our respondents and were not limited to just women’s participation in sports. Nearly 53% of the students answered that they are discouraged from participating in sports because the fields are mostly occupied by the institute teams. Excessive importance is awarded to these teams who tend to have a monopoly on the equipment and courts. Consequently, people looking to try out a sport for the first time or just play it casually are often overlooked.

Lastly, while many of the issues were specific to IITD, some problems go beyond our institute. Boys, in general, have been encouraged to play sports since their childhood, while some girls were not. A quarter of the students claimed that families discourage women from participating in sports. This sentiment was mirrored by some people we interviewed, who cited the risk of injuries as the reason. This highlights the prevalent mindset among society about sports being an unsuitable activity for women, which perpetuates their meagre participation.

The Role of BSA

As the apex student body for managing all sports activities on campus, BSA has a fundamental role in ensuring equal opportunities and access to sports facilities irrespective of gender. To get insights into BSA’s work and contribution towadrs bridging this gender gap, we approached the current BSA General Secretary, Harsh Pratap Singh, for an interview.

Harsh reiterated that the most glaring issue that discourages the participation of women in sports is the lack of incentives. Since some women’s sports are not conducted in Inter-IIT, women do not have any prestigious tournament to target. On the other hand, to introduce a new event in Inter-IIT, many IITs have to guarantee their participation. This forms a vicious cycle that prevents the introduction of new events.

BSA is actively taking initiatives toward increasing the participation of women in sports. Recently, the board organised an informal Women’s Cricket League in IIT Delhi’s annual sports fest, Sportech. The matches were in the tennis ball cricket format to ensure that new players also participated in large numbers in the league. The tournament was very well received, and there was enough participation to form 4 teams. Consequently, the administration approved conducting trials for women’s cricket in the grand inter-hostel tournament, the General Championship (GC). However, the plan had to be postponed due to the cancellation of the GC during the pandemic. Similarly, BSA also organised informal women’s football matches. Despite a lot of publicity, the participation was limited and conducting only 5v5 matches was feasible. Interestingly though, this was the most liked BSA Instagram post.

The overall participation is much better in non-team sports like athletics. There are no significant differences between men’s and women’s participation in these sports in most cases, except for the lack of specific events in Inter-IIT for women due to lesser involvement.

Regarding the issue of separate coaches for women, Harsh stated that BSA had approached the administration about the same, but the proposal was not approved. The administration cited the instability due to Coronavirus and reduced boards' funding to defer the initiative. In addition, they argued that the participation of women was still meagre and fluctuating, which did not justify the appointment of new separate coaches.

After talking to students, sports captains and representatives, we realised that many of the problems we identified require the approval or permission of the administration. Thus, our next step was to approach the Sports Officer, Dr Deepak Negi, to investigate the issues further.

The Role of the Administration

Our discussion with Dr Deepak Negi gave us an overview of the history of female participation and performance in sports at IIT Delhi, highlighting the reforms taken to accommodate a fairer proportion of women in the institute sports scenario. Cognizant of the skewed sex ratio in the Inter-IIT contingent over the years, the administration introduced a new system consisting of a separate women’s contingent around 2015-16. The team structure has witnessed a spectacular boost from a 10-membered, all-male contingent to separate male and female contingents consisting of 135 and 40 people respectively. Certain sports that were earlier deemed “unsuitable” and “not physically feasible” for women, including the 800m flat race and high jump, have been extended to the female population. There are still certain sports, including cricket and weightlifting, that are unavailable for women. Nevertheless, the administration is optimistic about participation being extended to them in the upcoming years.

Concerning the provision of sports facilities and their quality, the administration claims that they have not demonstrated any shortcomings. The new Mittal Sports Complex has been optimally constructed at an equal distance from boys’ and girls’ hostel areas and is equipped with state-of-the-art sporting facilities. Regardless of whether this was a deliberate decision on the administration’s part, the fact remains that the sports grounds, which will not be accommodated inside the new complex, such as tennis, volleyball and basketball courts, continue to be situated at a fairly inconvenient distance for women. The authorities strive to provide supreme quality sports equipment without any discrimination to all students and staff belonging to the institute, including providing aid to the Board for Hostel Management (BHM) responsible for managing sports goods at the hostel level. The admin is apprehensive about including female coaches in the institute; however, we were not provided further clarification in this regard.

We have recorded substantial efforts and refinements in the sports structure of the institute in general, with particular emphasis on the participation and situation of females in sports. However, while the administration may be content with the current level of involvement and accolades garnered by women in sports, we believe there is still scope for improvement. Women's stagnant and saturated state of affairs in sports needs a boost in participation, quality and quantity of equipment, as well as mentorship. Attending to general inconveniences that bar them from participating, including logistics and the reception by others, is crucial.

Perspective of Coaches

Sports coaches work closely with the players, and their perspective on the participation of women, or the lack thereof, is crucial for a thorough analysis of the situation. With this objective, we approached the squash coach, Mr Aakash, for his stance on the issue.

From Aakash sir, we learnt that the women’s squash team was formed recently in 2019. Their premier year witnessed a spectacular performance, highlighted by winning the silver medal in the Inter-IIT tournament. Unfortunately, the very next year, in 2020, sports activities got suspended due to the pandemic, which halted further growth of the squash culture in women.

While 15 girls participated in squash trials this year, only 6 to 7 committed to the game and regularly came for practice. In comparison, there was more than double the turnout for the men’s team. Nonetheless, the coach noted that the skills of women players were in no way inferior to that of men, announcing that one female student recently reached the finals of the Gujarat Open Tournament.

On being asked about the reasons for dismal participation numbers, he told us that many IITs still don't have a women’s squash team. Accordingly, there are fewer women’s matches. Although supernumerary seats have improved participation numbers, not everyone who comes for the trials commits to the sport in the long run.

Regarding international comparisons with universities like Harvard and Princeton, he elaborated that foreign institutes usually have 15 players each in the men's and women’s teams. In contrast, IIT Delhi has only three players in the institute team, out of which two spots are reserved for the senior players. Thus, only one new player essentially gets selected for the team each year; ergo, the incentive to participate sincerely is extremely low. He believes that participation can be somewhat improved if there are at least five spots in the institute team. All in all, Aakash sir reiterated the importance of increasing opportunities to incentivise the increasing participation of women in sports.

Sexism in Responses

While going through the survey responses, a few comments left us concerned. Although we acknowledge that they do not represent the majority of the IITD community, we felt it essential to highlight them as they are also a part of the problem.

Some students commented that women’s sports aren’t up to the quality of men’s sports and that the difference in physical strengths between men and women is why women’s sports aren’t given the same importance. Some even went so far as to state that women don’t know how to play sports. “Modern girls” were also blamed for the decreasing participation of women in physical activities, as “they will not drop their phones to burn out some calories on the ground”.

These statements and opinions, albeit rare, represent the very societal status quo that we as an institute are trying to break. They depict how essential it is to continue on this path of promotion and growth of women’s sports in our institute.

Concluding Remarks:

While IIT Delhi has taken some steps to improve women’s participation in sports, a lot still needs to be done. Through our survey and interviews, we received suggestions about initiatives that the institute or BSA can undertake to further encourage women to pursue sports. The crux of the entire problem is the vicious cycle formed due to low participation and lack of incentives. The sports authorities of all IITs need to correspond with each other to introduce new women’s events in the Inter-IIT tournament to break this cycle.

Since there are only two girls' hostels, the competition in inter-hostel sporting leagues is not at par with boys. Thus, women’s sports competitions should be held in different formats which include, but are not limited to, combined UG and PG events or leagues with multiple teams from each hostel. Seperate female coaches may also be appointed to encourage more students to participate.

In sports that do have a flourishing culture and an official team, amateur players can be assigned slots separate from the rigorous practices to try out a sport and play casually. This will help eliminate the hindrances posed by unavailablity of the fields and the intimidation felt by them due to the skills of advanced players. Additionally, the institute can improve the maintenance of sports equipment and fields. This will bolster participation in all sports across all genders.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, it is essential that these sensitive issues continue to find a voice in the institute. Although we are moving in the right direction with efforts being made to bridge the gap between male and female participation, the prevailing mindset of sports not being a suitable activity for women is detrimental to an inclusive sports culture in the institute.

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