Supernumerary at work: The story of the improving ratio

What, why and how?

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 IITD 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” (borrowing the parlance of the hour) - supernumerary seats for women. It was a way to counterbalance the multitude of barriers that stand in the way of the average woman compared to the average man. To that effect, the expectations set on this cure, to be fair, 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 JEE Advanced. In the past, 12% percent of the 20% of women that cleared the JEE Advanced would not take advantage of the opportunity at hand, due to various hidden social pressures. The introduction of this quota meant to break that cycle, to improve the number of women actually joining IITs. Long term, the goal was to break the social stigmas that exist around women in traditionally male dominated branches like Mechanical Engineering, 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 pressure, the issues faced at coaching, could perhaps be influenced by this incentive (going to an IIT) that the scheme creates. Long term, by creating more role models in the field, it meant to create a culture that could promote inculcation of young women.

Lastly, it meant to create a better, more open environment in the colleges 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 better. Every girl that entered the college would be able to “fit in” and find a peer group with similar tastes more easily. Of course, more open cross gender interaction wouldn’t hurt either. Sexism, in both a professional and non-professional setting, continues to be a real problem, and this attempts to do its part in solving that by enforcing more interaction at younger ages.

Of course, as with any cure, this one came with its set of side effects. The primary one in this case was that of uproar from male candidates, who felt they were somehow losing their seats to undeserving candidates with lesser ranks. While the semantics of how the scheme works lends itself to such a debate, it is not one we should necessarily get sucked into. The reality is, this point of view exists, and its existence means a certain regret and hostility toward the women availing this scheme exists too. It is the effect of this hostility that should concern us.

With 2020 being the third year of the supernumerary scheme, we attempt to assess how the increment in the influx of women in IIT’s has affected the scene at different steps: from coaching, to admission, to life at IIT, including relationships with professors, TAs, lab assistants, and peers. We juxtapose that with the stigma supernumerary is often accompanied by, and understand how well the scheme has achieved (or begun to achieve) its (rather lofty) goals.

Before the hallows of IIT

The two or more years leading up to JEE are arguably one of the most intense times in an IITian’s life. These years, requiring consistent focus and hard work, are also shaped by an aspirants’ peer group, their exposure to the right guidance and study material, and a supportive environment, among other things. One of the objectives of supernumerary seats was to increase the number of women appearing in JEE Advanced and consequently opting for IIT post-qualifying, something that is sensitive to creation of role-models, the stigma around specific disciplines and engineering in general, and whether or not parents invest in the future of girls as an engineer.

“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

Role model creation was agreed upon by most to be an essential phenomenon in encouraging women and their parents to pursue IIT’s dream. However, the extent to which this has happened, specifically for women, recently remains a point of contention.

“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, 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 agree that there has been a positive shift due to the increased number of women at IIT, they believe that there are still ways to go and more concrete effects can only be seen 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 6 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

Connotations about individual branches being less suitable for women permeating in the mentality of coaching institutes and families has come across as a recurring theme. This sentiment is shown by parents, family members, and, at times, coaching institutes and teachers. An argument can be made that the stigma around specific branches and IIT inhibit women from enrolling in IIT over other colleges post qualifying JEE. It can also potentially harm these disciplines by making it harder for qualified female engineers to opt for them.

“During our counselling, our teachers were like branches like mechanical are not suitable for girls.” - Vanshika*, 2017 Entry

“...this mentality persists everywhere that how girls would 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 wale kaam. In our senior batch, there was only 1 girl initially in mech dept, so that makes girls a bit hesitant at the beginning..” - Ankita, 2017 Entry

Many believe that these norms are sensitive to role-model creation and, therefore, can improve with supernumerary.

“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 on 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 IITD. 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

Societal pressure against engineering for women, parents preferring institutes closer to home, and not co-ed ones were also highlighted.

“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. 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 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 agree that an increase can help these women opt for IIT, which has occurred through supernumerary, causing a change in the general societal attitude as well as there now being a better chance of women qualifying.

“There aren't many girls getting into eng 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 place where most end up spending hours each day. There is a general trend wherein female students feel much comfortable interacting with other female students and the dearth of women in the senior batches or coaching institutes, in general, has a detrimental effect on the preparation and the peer interactions of female aspirants.

The peer interactions came out to be an important aspect that suffered due to the lack of female students. The effect of these came through as pronounced in not just the personal day-to-day life but also the academic life.

“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, beta, had a lot of girls and so I started taking classes in 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 the interviewees, the years post supernumerary saw an increase in the number of women going to coaching. However, the sentiment of little peer interaction and its consequences remained largely ubiquitous, a possible reason for the same being that there still were fewer female students in the top batches or those who were as invested in JEE preparation as their other male peers.

“One of disadvantage that I felt during my coaching was that since there were a small number of girls so my discussion group was limited, at that time I was not very comfortable in asking boys doubt 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 Fiitjee center. 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

A common theme of safety issues behind girls traveling to and fro from coaching was observed. This was present in both the post and pre supernumerary years, however, the increase in the number of women traveling seems to have made the situation better.

“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 attitude of condescension and patronization from the coaching teachers. This attitude can play a part in reinforcing the stigma around women in STEM and could have a further detrimental effect on female aspirants’ confidence. This, too, was observed to have been predominant in both the years pre and post supernumerary.

“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