Musings on a BITSian Life: Epilogue

This post serves an Epilogue for the series on ‘Musings on a BITSian Life‘.

There is a time and opportunity cost attached to everything. Everything. This is probably one of the most humbling realizations of adulthood. Its probably why people came up with the proverb: “Youth is Wasted on the Young”. (Not sure why more young people are not doing something to change this, well anyway).

The 20s can be an incredible time of one’s life. Youth has a definition in terms of age. I would like to add to that definition. Youth is when your time belongs to you, that beyond certain basic things, you are answerable/accountable to almost no one. Think of the vast possibilities and freedoms such a state of mind brings. It so happens that in the current setup of our lives, mostly 20s is the age around which people find themselves to be in this state naturally. (Imagine those who never get this chance and those who never realize that they are experiencing it, bah)!

Having some inkling of this, I set out in my 20s with the goal to have a reasonably good idea as to where I stood on the Risk-Endurance graph I describe in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective. Even the dating world has a version of this goal paraphrased in its own language. It goes something like this: “Before an I Love You, there is an I”. Armed with these aphorisms, my 20s were filled with experiments. Filled with questions and zealous attempts to answer them. The world tested me and I tested the world. It was tiring, painful but very, very revealing.

I will go out on a limb and say that close to graduation, take a blank piece of paper. Sketch out the axes of the 2 graphs (1,2) I have described in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective and put a few dots on them (for yourself and the people important to you). You may get a graduation degree at the end of your time at BITS but that little piece of paper will be your own (real) graduation certificate.

In my last few days on BITS campus, I found myself once again at odds with some sections of the administration on a technicality. Most people I knew had said their goodbyes, packed up bags and left. I was determined to find a way out of the technicality however (because the alternative was not acceptable to me). In the searing desert heat of Pilani, I visited my room in the small breaks from that rebellious attempt to empty it out in time for final summer closure. On one of those days, a junior from the Athletics team I had captained a year ago gave me a hand-painted poster with this little couplet from my all time favourite poem:

Lives of great (wo)men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us 
Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another, 
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, 
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, 
Seeing, shall take heart again.

My particular circumstances at the time had rendered me pretty lonely and depressed and I was losing sight of the journey. (My favorite poem coming back to me in such an incredible way felt like a sign from the universe). So, I would like to thank her for making me realize that I was leaving footprints in the sands of time and that someone was noticing. 

I have argued at length about the increasing role of specialization in the future of work. And I began this epilogue with how everything has a time and opportunity cost. Given the nature of the competitive field I am in, it would have been far more beneficial professionally for me if I had spent the time instead writing some research paper to get published in a fancy AI/ML conference. That background processor was always running as I churned out some of this. 

However, I wanted to honor the sign the universe sent me on a cruelly hot summer afternoon in Pilani in 2012 and leave honest footprints in the sands of time. Brutally honest ones at that. I hope that this helps some forlorn and shipwrecked soul somewhere, someday, take heart again! 

The Future of Work: An Individual Perspective

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In The Future of Work, but first a History, I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In Future of Work, but first Now and the Near Future I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In Future of Work: A Vision, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. 

In this piece I suggest a framework to prepare for that future at an individual level, (one I have used at every decision point of my career). I also intend this piece to serve as a final one for my series on ‘Musings on a BITSian Life’.

To recap from Future of Work: A Vision

“As the rate of change of relevant skills becomes higher, one will have to take bigger and more frequent bets with their time to develop new skills and specializations. This cannot happen if one is not passionate, disciplined, talented etc. but most importantly this cannot happen if one’s work is not a good representation of one’s self, one’s aspired identity. The resilience and endurance required to keep meeting waves of change cannot be developed if the actions required for this are not in sync with who you are and who you want to be.”

The Future of Work: A Vision

To have some clarity on that last bit, I propose that a person should have a reasonably good idea of where they stand on two graphs.

Risk Endurance Profile

In Asian households, there is a misguided refrain oft repeated motivating children to put in grueling efforts for grades/entrance exams to have a shot at an elite education. It goes something to the effect of “Study for 10th grade /national board exams, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Study for 12th grade/SAT exams, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Study engineering/medicine, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Do an MBA, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Get into investment banking or consulting, you can enjoy life later.” Then after a few years: “Get promoted, you can enjoy life later”. This is a version of the work treadmill I have described, for young people. This sentiment and its psychological impact on young people has been captured beautifully in the international hit movie: 3 Idiots.

As I have argued here that this advice has several problems with it but the most important one is that it is outdated and irrelevant. With the highly visible success of technology companies today via stock market, valuations, IPOs, and the buzzwords related to AI being hyped everywhere, newer parents might advise their children to study computer science because that seems to be the future. That would indeed update the advice, however it would still remain mistaken.

Just as an example, the competitive advantages of knowing generic computer science are also thinning away rapidly. It is already advisable to develop expertise in particular branches of computer science or machine learning or combination fields such as robotics, NLP. And that trend is only going to continue. 

The real point is that if you are on a path or a trajectory, moving forward on it will only require you to become more and more of what got you there. Not only will you have to do more of it but you will most likely have to get very good at it. If you have to change yourself too much to get somewhere, its a great indication that the whole destination should be re-evaluated. Because the dissonance between the journey and the self, if it exists, usually only gets worse. As career trajectories become more exponential, winner-takes-most in nature, this question of re-evaluation will become more important for more people.

Therefore when standing at a decision point i.e. choosing a journey and a destination, one must have some understanding of where one stands on this graph. What are the risks of that path and does one have a reserve of endurance to face their downsides? A lot of people know this somewhat intuitively and frame the question in different ways but those questions are essentially finding one’s place in this graph:

Risk Endurance Profile

There are two very important notes to keep in mind during this thought exercise: 1) This assessment can change over time. For example, you may find yourself in possession of more financial resources increasing your appetite for risk or endurance. Similarly your life’s circumstances may change due to external factors making it impossible to take high risks. So very crucially, 2) this assessment is not a judgement. Some egoistic “self-unaware” people would like to think that placing oneself in a low-risk-low-endurance category would be undesirable. However this assessment is not necessarily intrinsic to your character. For example most societies suffer from a systemic lack of imagination about women’s roles in the future of work, education and productivity. There are societies where nobody wants to invest in them (ensuring 0 endurance) and nobody wants to take a bet on them (ensuring 0 risk taking ability). This leads to social systems forcing a certain quadrant on a certain demographic of society. Therefore placing yourself on this quadrant is not so much a judgement but an honest look at where you stand and what may lie ahead. 

Aggressive-Passive-Independent-Conventional

The first graph was mostly about placing oneself on it. I also argue that it is not intrinsic to who you may be as a person. But the next graph may be more so.

No (wo)man is an island. I struggled for a very long time to crystallize the many ways in which you also need to understand and place the people who surround you, a mental model of sorts for people. But then I came across this exceptional essay by Paul Graham on ‘The Four Quadrants of Conformism’ and there was an aha moment. Here is my attempt at a pictorial representation of the quadrants he has laid out. Of course every word of that essay explaining the quadrant is worth a read.

Axes of Conformism

Why is this useful? Sometimes when you are too embedded inside a group of people like high-school friends, college friends or family, it is hard to see the bigger or the real picture. The usual tendency is to consider anyone with a different orientation inferior. Thinking for a few minutes about people surrounding you on these axes might bring reality closer home. 

For example in a previous essay, I have described how groups which don’t have a clear purpose tend to be exceptionally subjective. Groups that don’t have much clarity on why they are together look for artificial reasons to stick together, often fermenting and rotting in each other’s company. Instantaneously becoming more rigid, closer and suspicious of newer arrivals and further entrenching that process. If your bond with someone/something derives strength from stepping on someone else, ironically that entity you collectively despise becomes the most important defining aspect of the relationship. Only groups that have strong clarity on why they are together can also at the same time be agile enough to discover new people.

Which kind of group are you in? Which group of people do you have a problem with? Placing both on a graph can lead to better understanding and better preparation for the future.

I’ll end with two things (relevant mostly for young people). It is remarkable how much our institutions encourage pattern-following and rarely ever provide the tools for pattern discovery (let alone pattern-questioning, maybe the reason we are set up in a race with ourselves for self destruction, hello climate change!).

As I elaborate on this point in the context for college students in this essay, developing a good question and finding the right people to ask it are both incredibly important, yet very hard. But an inexperienced person is in the unique position to seek out many people, study many journeys and observe the outcomes. To separate the traveler from the journey and the destination. To carry out good great pattern discovery.

The worst* kind of young people are people who think an earlier time in history was a better time, who look back at history, convention and tradition and believe that some prior combination of these was better. It means that they have bought into the power systems which have caused the world as it stands today. (You could be a completely ignorantly blissful person and say “so what’s the problem with the world as it stands today”, but I highly doubt such a person would even be reading this right now).

The best kind of old people are people who are excited for the future and wish they could live a little longer because it demonstrates a vision for an improved possibility, likely one that their life’s work has contributed to. You must decide pretty early on which kind of young person and which kind of old person you want to be.

Epilogue

I must acknowledge Sahil Shah, my husband, who brought Paul Graham’s essay on conformism to my attention.

If you ever wonder, why I wrote all of this, I answer that here.

*P.S. Thanks to a new trend of hyped up lists of 30-under-30, 40-under-40 entities (people, startups, wannabe twitter celebrities etc.), there is a new contender for the worst category. I do not want to waste too many words on this professional version of attention seeking. Also, I am totally in the market for any comprehensive analysis which could answer questions like: How many startups which showed up in the 30-under-30 category were able to survive 5 years after that. Or if any managed to transition to the 40-under-40 category. Analogous questions for people. Or if the number of twitter followers or facebook fans is actually correlated to any meaningful real life metric such as funding, valuation, revenue etc. Enough words wasted already. Moving on.

The Future of Work: A Vision

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In The Future of Work, but first a History, I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In Future of Work, but first Now and the Near Future I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In this post, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. Most importantly for the reader, in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective I describe a decision framework at the individual level about how to prepare for that future of work and the changing dynamic between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

The Real Implications of ‘Winner-Takes-Most’

I’ll draw upon the shift that is happening in the world of computer vision to demonstrate my point. Deep learning, the latest buzzword in the field today really established its place at the forefront of machine learning in 2010. Deep learning approaches were being developed by a group of researchers since the 1990s. A culmination of advances in processing power like GPUs and large labeled datasets like ImageNet created the perfect arena. One in which the deep learning approach finally demonstrated that it could significantly out do traditional computer vision approaches. Quite rapidly, almost overnight, the expertise of traditional computer vision researchers & practitioners became outdated. While the original scientists and researchers worked in relative obscurity to develop these ideas, it was their students and 2nd generation PhD students who find themselves in the most advantageous position today. External viewers of this phenomenon (such as journalists, new students etc.) are processing this disruption in 3 ways:

right-time-right-place

This attitude supposes that all or (at the very least) the 2nd wave of early students in the field were in the right place at the right time to capture the deep learning wave.

rapture

This attitude places the original researchers, the 2nd and 3rd wave of researchers all in the same category. That category being one of iconoclastic geniuses more or less.

this-is-the-usual (technological-disruption)

This attitude looks at history and normalizes the deep learning wave as yet another example of the long history of technological disruptions.

Each of these perspectives captures and yet misses some important part of the whole picture. 

right-time-right-place attitude acknowledges that several veins of technological/science research require similar kinds of ingenuity, creativity, and technical brilliance. It tries to reduce the perceived gap in the merit of less successful but similar efforts carried out with the same intention and integrity.

this-is-the-usual tries to bring some perspective to the scale of upheaval a technological disruption brings about by normalizing it with history. However, it trivializes the fact that there is hardly ever anything “usual” about birthing something new. 

Both right-time-right-place and this-is-the-usual (technological disruption) attitudes do not give adequate recognition to the amount of risk, courage of conviction and effort it takes to believe/test new ideas. Especially in the face of powerful convention.

The rapture, hero-worship attitude in contrast to the other two gives ample recognition to the risk and courage of conviction it takes to birth new ideas in the face of excruciating uncertainty and occasional hardline naysayers. Yet it is probably off the mark the most in terms of creating a gap between the many similarly courageous people and their efforts.

These prevalent attitudes are not merely my observation. They are pretty much directly reflected in the common wage structure today. In 2014, two researchers from University of Bangkok and HBS conducted a survey about “How Much (More) Should CEOs Make?”. I encourage the reader to stare for a little while at the 2 graphs on a blog post about this study.

Briefly, in the United States, people estimated that CEOs make about 30 times more than an “unskilled” worker. Again most people think that should number should be 7.

30 and 7. Thats one chasm.

Now here’s the real deal, that number in reality is 350.

7 (ideal) –> 30 (estimated) –> 350 (actual)

That is an even bigger chasm.

A Hypothesis

A common framework that everyone tries to fit the changing equation of Work, Value/Productivity into is one of capitalism and socialism. But these frameworks are no longer sufficient and out of touch with reality. The crux of the problem is this:

All attempts to solve society’s problems/create value can be categorized into 3 buckets. 

  1. Successful attempt – the one that actually worked.
  2. Unsuccessful attempts – the ones that lacked one or more factors preventing them from becoming Successful attempts.
  3. No attempt
  4. <Fraud>

Pure socialism is the right-time-right-place/this-is-all-luck attitude taken to its extreme. It assumes that the gap between (1), (2) and (3) is near zero. Crucially it almost makes no distinction between unsuccessful attempts and those who make “No attempt”. Any person who has tried to create something of value (whether successful or not) cannot be true to themselves and accept this value system at the same time (especially those who have suffered the downsides of being in category (2)).

Pure capitalism is the rapture attitude taken to its extreme. It assumes that there is a huge gap between (1) and (2) and that it is justified. Specifically, it assumes that the reward gap between a successful approach and other similar approaches should exist (in the name of incentive/competition etc). Because of this crucially, it also places (2) and (3) at the same level (of near zero utility).

So here is my hypothesis for the crux of the problem:
Current Value systems underestimate how much a Successful attempt (1) is actually a function of Unsuccessful attempts(2). We need several different perspectives, attempts and approaches for the many unsolved problems facing the world today. This underestimation is another reason why current Education, Work, Value systems are so comfortable ignoring the human potential of women and large swathes of other under-represented demographics. Moreover and equally importantly, any value distribution framework will have to find a way to first differentiate between (1) and (2) and (3) and subsequently maintain those differences at “reasonable” levels.

True, real innovators mostly appreciate how deeply and extensively (1) is a function of (2). Geoffrey Hinton, a pioneer of deep learning, the field and example I have chosen to anchor this discussion, recently said, “The future depends on some graduate student who is deeply suspicious of everything I have said.” (*There is greatness and then there is transcendence). 

Grounded in this hypothesis of value creation, I lay out a vision of the Future of Work.

A Vision (for Work & Value)

About Work.

The lifecycle of change and disruption is going to become shorter and the rate of change faster in all walks of life. Thanks to automation, technological disruption and shifting labor markets, the gains from specialization are going to be exponentially high, massive. Leading to increasing winner-takes-most scenarios. But only until that specialization is relevant and only until that winner-takes-most advantage is not commoditized or regulated away. To become a winner in this winner-takes-most scenario and to reestablish a specialization in a new area, one has to take bets and spend time in areas that may generate value in the future. Areas for which it would not at all be clear or certain that spending time in it is going to lead to those substantial exponential gains that will make that time bet worth it. This is a vision for ‘Work’ part of the equation.

Now about ‘Value’.

In this changing scenario, Maslow’s Hierarchy, a concept devised in 1943, holds the key for how the perception of ‘Value’ is going to change. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are classified as ‘Deficiency’ needs. Two very important characteristics of those needs are that the longer they are denied, the more a person becomes motivated to fulfill them. However, once they are fulfilled to reasonable levels, people are more motivated to transition to higher levels of the pyramid instead of fulfilling those needs in greater amounts or to a higher quantity.

The picture changes completely when an individual transitions to fulfilling a ‘Growth’ need such as creativity, self-expression etc. These needs may become stronger as they are engaged. They do not exist because of the lack of something but from the desire of an individual to reach higher levels of self actualization.

Herein lies the key to that future of work. As the rate of change of relevant skills becomes higher, one will have to take bigger and more frequent bets with their time to develop new skills and specializations. This cannot happen if one is not passionate, disciplined, talented etc. but most importantly this cannot happen if one’s work is not a good representation of one’s self, one’s aspired identity. The resilience and endurance required to keep meeting waves of change cannot be developed if the actions required to do them are not in sync with who you are and who you want to be.

As a corollary, traditional rat races (manifested in entrance exams, school grades bell curves, promotion bell curves, traditional careers and their ladders) are not only dehumanizing etc. but that they are already and will rapidly become irrelevant. Talk to most super achievers in their fields, whether politics, technology, art, law etc. and you will find that their hours only increase as they transition up the pyramid, not decrease. External observers (like journalists, retired past generation) focus only at the value society provides top performers in exchange for these hours in terms of money and labels it a success. However, this situation can only realistically be called a success if those hours contribute to that person’s idea of who they want to be. For example, I do believe this is one of the reasons top actresses have such a hard time making peace with who they are when they are at the top, irrespective of the pay. Because they realize that suddenly the sex symbol image that was helpful on the way to the top is no longer in sync with their needs for respect, prestige and control over pay in a highly sexually misogynistic society.(*1)

A thumb rule to discern these kinds of ‘top performers’ which has anecdotally worked for me is: People who’s success is out of sync with who they want to be, go to great lengths looking for external validation. They regularly engage in ego-matches and show-off contests to bridge the gap. Anecdotally, the thumb rule also seems to have a good prediction rate for sustained future success of that entity (person, group, company, community etc.).

This was the vision for future of work as it would look like to an individual. At the system level, institutional level I do think that the survival of a society will depend on how much we can enable people to do (2) so that as a group we have a real shot at (1). The key may really be in enabling a lot of people to take risks and experiment. It is to provide more people both the incentive and the safety net to experiment with new approaches, take risks and improve existing or outdated systems. And reward them if through their risks, they develop something of true value to society that solves a real problem. (Universal Basic Income is one financial vehicle that is being touted as a possible way to achieve this).

As political systems have demonstrated again and again, they rarely wake up in time to deliver opportune solutions to people’s problems. They usually have to be jolted into such a state with ugly processes like war, revolutions, violent protests and painful sacrifices of their victims. Since governmental politics is inter-connected with education, the wheels of motion are slow there too. As COVID-19 is already demonstrating, most universities in the developed world are having a hard time coming up with any logical, coherent approach for their modus operandi for the crisis. Not having invested in modernizing education, most are struggling with upgrading to online methods and are quite unabashedly passing on the buck to students. Therefore it is unlikely that large scale systems will change in any meaningful way to handle the already changed or changing nature of work and productivity.

There are some people who have the “good fortune” even today of living in that future of work. The upsides seem to be

“offices in the rich world’s capitals are filled with clever people working collaboratively.…The pleasure lies partly in flow, in the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend…shaping high-quality, bespoke products from beginning to end…design, fashion, smooth and improve, filing the rough edges and polishing the words, the numbers, the code or whatever is our chosen material. At the end of the day we can sit back and admire our work – the completed article, the sealed deal, the functioning app – in the way that artisans once did, and those earning a middling wage in the sprawling service-sector no longer do….Work is a wonderful refuge (from emotional troubles).” 

Ryan Avent: “Why we work so hard?”

It looks great so far but in the face of lacking systemic support to step out of it, the same things that provide these advantages are also the reasons that over time will become points of weaknesses.

“…it does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill;…Or to develop hobbies, side-interests…it makes failure or error a more difficult, humiliating experience. Social life ceases to be a refuge from the indignities of work. The sincerity of relationships becomes questionable…they befriend their clients because they spend too much time with them…Stepping off the treadmill does not just mean accepting a different vision of one’s prospects with a different salary trajectory. It means upending one’s life entirely: changing locations, tumbling out of the community, losing one’s identity. Spending our leisure time with other professional strivers buttresses the notion that hard work is part of the good life and that the sacrifices it entails are those that a decent person makes. This is what a class with a strong sense of identity does: it effortlessly recasts the group’s distinguishing vices as virtues.”

Ryan Avent: “Why we work so hard?”

As this vision of work becomes a reality for more and more people, the revolution needed to prepare for it will have to be borne by the individual in their own personal lives. In the face of lacking leadership, support from the system, how do you prepare for this eventuality? This is what I talk about in my next article: The Future of Work: An Individual’s Perspective.

Epilogue

I must acknowledge Mahaveer Meghawat, my father, as many of the ideas in this post were sharpened over many many discussions with him.

I must also talk a little about ‘Education’. Of the 3 pillars from Work, Education & Value, Education is the least ‘valued’ today but probably the most fundamental to how individuals will choose Work in the future and perceive its Value. One school of thought posits that education reform is ‘THE’ key to looking at a brighter future. My favorite author on education reform in the Indian context, Prof. Arvind Kudchadker outlines a bold yet practical vision in his book ‘Creating a New Technological Institute’. This position is obviously true and relatable for almost every knowledge worker.

This 2014 essay on “Productivity And The Education Delusion” by Techcrunch editor Danny Crichton captures beautifully the many dilemmas this school of thought faces. (Totally worth reading).

What does an extreme form of this vision for the Future of Work look like? I encourage you to watch Chef’s Table episodes on Grant Achatz and Jeong Kwan in their entirety for a glimpse of this. (The episodes are an absolute treat to watch as an added benefit).

(*1)- I would refer the interested reader to the movie: ‘My Week with Marilyn’ and her wiki page for a real world example of this.

The Future of Work, but first Now & the Near Future

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In The Future of Work, but first a History , I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In this post, I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In Future of Work: A Vision, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. Most importantly for the reader, in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective I describe a decision framework at the individual level about how to prepare for that future of work and the changing dynamic between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

The Treadmill (Now)

Technology, decentralization of work, globalization, these forces mean that increasingly most jobs are becoming winner-take-all or winner-take-most competitions.

“Banks and law firms amass extraordinary financial returns, directors and partners within those firms make colossal salaries, and the route to those coveted positions lies through years of round-the-clock work. Securing a place near the top of the income spectrum in such a firm, and remaining in it is a matter of constant struggle and competition”.

Ryan Avent: “Why we work so hard?”

Constant competition, a requirement of long work hours for years on end has several other social outcomes. Firstly such competition encourages concentration i.e. such people cluster together. Therefore same relatively high earning people drive up the cost competing for other resources such as real estate, professional services, education etc.

Finally, this forms a feedback loop. The cost to achieve the same lifestyle keeps going up and so does the need to work ever longer hours for increased professional achievement to meet those costs. It is as if you are on a constant hedonic treadmill. This phenomenon has excruciating social outcomes for the individual, something that has formed the fodder for many TV series and movies. (E.g. Suits, Scrubs etc.).

(Notice that the so called 40 hour work week concept is practically irrelevant for knowledge economy workers today). Career trajectories are rapidly changing from linear to exponential for most parts of the economy. As mentioned earlier, while low skilled workers are forced to accept ever smaller pay rises to stay in work, high skilled workers need to work longer and longer to maintain their place in these exponential trajectories. Because that next jump will mean exponentially more for the individual than not fighting for it and staying in the same place.

The pyramid to the top has been a reality since the dawn of human society. However the point I’m trying to make is that the reward gaps in the pyramid are widening. The gap will gradually become unsustainable for those participating in it its lower rungs socially, psychologically and eventually financially (unless they score the exponential jumps up the pyramid). The 2nd point I want to make is that this pyramid is becoming longer, wider and more common in all kinds of industries. We may not realize but almost every knowledge economy job will start or already resembles the set up of competitive sports athletes.

Near Future

As articulated brilliantly in Armando Fox’s amazon book review of Ryan Avent’s book on the topic, if the current setup of the economy continues:

“Future employment opportunities will likely satisfy at most 2 of the following 3 conditions (employment trilemma):

  1. High Productivity & Wages
  2. Resistant to Automation
  3. Potential to absorb large amounts of Labor

Example of (1) ❌, (2) ✅, (3) ✅

To see the dynamic, consider the solar-panel industry. Increased productivity in manufacturing solar panels has caused them to drop in cost, creating a large market for solar panel installers, a job resistant to automation (meets criteria 2 and 3). But that same increased productivity means most of the cost of acquiring solar is the installation labor, limiting wage growth for installers (fails criterion 1).

As another example, consider healthcare. As technology increases the productivity of (or automates) other aspects of care delivery, healthcare jobs will concentrate in non-automatable services requiring few skills besides bedside manner and the willingness to do basic and often unpleasant caregiver tasks.

Example of (1) ✅, (2) ✅, (3) ❌

Consider artisanally-produced goods, whose low productivity is part of their appeal (meets 1 and 2). But the market for them is limited to the small subset of people who can afford to buy them (fails 3).”

I encourage you to read that amazon book review in its entirety. Totally worth every second you will spend reading it.

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Jefferson:
Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade
In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground
We create. You just wanna move our money around

…….
Hamilton:
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting

Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda

So far the discussion has focused on technological disruption, globalization, automation, shifting labor markets etc. as the primary movers causing dynamic changes in the equation between work, education and productivity. But this is not the only reason why general assumptions about this equation are at odds with realities of actual value generation in society.

The other primary reason is a social one.

“What work is valuable to society?” This question has always been answered only by a select group of people who represent only a certain demographic of humanity. Historically that demographic has always been powerful men. (And they haven’t gotten it right enough, ever). (And they have extensive mechanisms to keep the output of that value concentrated with themselves). Most social unrest across the world has originated from groups who did not have a say in this answer trying to fight for one. As automation increasingly catches up with aspects of work and society which were considered “valuable” by only this particular demographic, we are in turn periodically forced to reconsider what the term “valuable” means actually.

For example one such dissonance is in the work that the different genders do. As I argue in my essay on the origins of Wonder Woman:

“The work that women do in shaping the future of humanity (literally by raising children) and safeguarding the health of families has no formal recognition in that ever enigmatic metric of honor, GDP”.

Aaksha Meghawat: “The Myth of Wonder Woman”

This is not a plea for more consideration. Creating structural disadvantages for participants of this important aspect of society that moves it forward makes all of us the worse for it. This value creation shows up in other ways. For example, 70% of top male earners in the US have a spouse who stays home. The women in these households are creating value which goes on to create and preserve family legacies but they usually have little ultimate control over the return of that value. Modern economic society has no framework to deal with the value provided to it in rearing nourished, psychologically stable, positively contributing humans. It is probably the reason school teachers earn abysmally low amounts as well.

If we wake up Keynes from his grave today and ask him to imagine a household where both husband and wife are high skilled workers, he would probably describe a scenario hypothesized in Ryan Avent’s essay:

“Each may opt to work 35 hours a week, sharing more of the housework, and ending up with both more money and more leisure.”

Further, regrettably 

“that didn’t happen. Rather, both are now more likely to work 60 hours a week and pay several people to care for the house and children”.

Ryan Avent: “Why we work so hard?”

The exponential trajectory nature of knowledge economy jobs has something to do with this. However the artificial social constructs which decide whose labor is valuable and whose is not irrespective of how they benefit society also has a lot to do with it. These artificial constructs are what prevent that “sharing of housework” (and are problematic to say the very least).

“Those most at risk of technological disruption are men in blue-collar jobs, many of whom reject taking less ‘masculine’ roles in fast-growing areas such as health care”.

Equipping people to stay ahead of technological change

After a lot of efforts from many people across countries and cultures, the only recognition of the labor needed in raising children is parental leave. Beyond this the so called economic wisdom offers nothing for such an important aspect of society. (That silence or inadequacy is taken over routinely by even more archaic power structures such as Religion who attempt to undermine abortion, Planned Parenthood and other medical organizations, sabotaging efforts offering women more control over this process).

And this is not a new problem.  As the fictional rap exchange between Jefferson & Hamilton demonstrates, denying people the true value of their labor and boosting economic metrics has happened time and again. For example consider this short recap of Manumission in the US, capturing how the rise and decline of labor intensive crops directly affected society’s appetite and rules for freeing slaves. This is Goodhart’s law playing out at its worst and it has real damning implications for our lives.  

Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Marilyn Strathern

The culmination of all this is a ‘winner-takes-most’ setup. What I talk about next is what this really means for us as a society. (And no, its not a trope on anti-trust laws, capitalism etc. I hope to offer something different, hopefully more useful).

The Future of Work, but first a History

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In this post, I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In Future of Work, but first Now and the Near Future I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In Future of Work: A Vision, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. Most importantly for the reader, in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective I describe a decision framework at the individual level about how to prepare for that future of work and the changing dynamic between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

The Common Idea

We have been raised with the idea that Education will make “better” Work accessible to us. Our Education is a means to an end. This is not a judgement on the nature of education. It is an observation, almost an unstated fact. A crude blueprint of this system which happens to be in most people’s minds is:

“Our Education is a means to an end.”

Let me unpack that statement a little bit.

The “Means” need to transform us into a “productive” entity as defined by a Keynesian economic idea of “valuable”. 

The “End” is a realization of this “productivity” in terms of some form of “value”. 

“Value” is usually a combination of money and a lifestyle.

This idea did not just randomly take birth in society. It has very interesting origins which hold grave implications for the future and what we value as society. Prior to these ideas, most of the older generation passed on specialized knowledge to the younger generation via the system of apprenticeships.

The “means to an end” approach for education is an approximation of the commonly understood relation between Education, Work and Productivity (Value). However, in real life the relation between these 3 aspects is not at all obvious or clear. This common understanding of the relationship is often inconsistent with the rapidly changing needs of society, often structurally disadvantageous to some forms of real value generation/productivity over others.

So before jumping to a hypothesis of the future, I want to give you a brief tour of the origin of this idea.

History of Work: A Brief Tour

After most societies of the world had been sufficiently robbed of their ‘Produce’ by the European colonial powers, thanks to the “world” wars in Europe and subsequent independence wars in the rest of the world, modern political states were formed and there was a brief window to rethink what they valued as a society. A brief window to restructure the equation of work, value and education.

The conventional advice we receive today stem from ideas /assumptions developed about work and productivity in the few years following this period. The post-war/post-independence concept of work was largely shifting from work-for-survival to work-for-comfort for an increasing number of people. Not a significant proportion of society but an increasing one. More people were making the transition from ‘Basic Needs’ to upper levels of ‘Psychological Needs’ of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Several events in the western world set the tone for what conventional ideas surrounding work would soon look like. Labor unions began mounting political pressure in the 1870s for 8 hour-work-days.

Henry Ford re-organized the manufacturing process of his car factory by breaking it up into small, specialized tedious parts which meant that a worker needed only minimal training to contribute to the process. This resulted in huge efficiency gains. Subsequently he was one of the first industrialists who supported a 40 hour work week. It was more or less passed into law in the US in 1940s.

Similarly Germany set the retirement age at 65 in the late 1800s as a populist political move (why 65? Simply because people were not expected to live beyond that age at the time). The trend spread among other governments with the US government finally passing it into law in 1935.

Ryan Avent in his brilliant essay “Why we work so hard?” beautifully articulates that the post-war concept of work was a

“…means to an end…it was something you did to earn the money to pay for the important things in life….the working class had become a leisured class. Households saved money to buy a house and a car, to take holidays, to finance a retirement at ease…work was never supposed to be the centre of one’s life…”.

The industrial revolution was reaching its zenith with increased automation and innovation. There was an idea prevalent in American society at the time that the trend of automation might continue free-ing many more people from the need to work 40 hours per week.

“Keynes extrapolated in 1930 that a century hence, society might be so rich that the hours worked by each person could be cut to ten or 15 a week”.

This extrapolation might seem strange or illogical today but at the time

“productivity rose across the western world, hourly wages for typical workers kept rising and hours worked per week kept falling – to the mid-30s, by the 1970s”.

The extrapolation at the time seemed pretty reasonable, so what happened? Why aren’t you and I looking forward to a 20 hour work week (after graduation) with loads of free time to binge watch the whole of Netflix or work on a startup idea or produce and raise children or compose the next Hamilton?

While the 40 hour work week was on its way to becoming the norm in the western world, the supposed automation that was required to sustain the productivity levels of the typical worker did not actually happen. The productivity level fell out of sync with the automation needed to sustain it and a 40 hour work week was no longer viable. This paved the way for exporting manufacturing jobs to cheaper markets which did not have such labor-market restrictions, like China.

Wherever it was possible to simplify and atomize manufacturing steps, the efficiency gains in the short run resulted in higher wages for workers but also made them more susceptible to automation in the medium run. Another school of thought also points out that all of this was happening against the backdrop of a decline in the bargaining power of labor unions and the welfare state.

“Less-skilled workers found themselves forced to accept ever-smaller pay rises to stay in work. (They willingly or unwillingly worked fewer hours).”

I want to present another key point about automation which is often missed in such analyses. After having built machine learning products for over 5 years overseeing algorithms & pipelines to automate and enable business decisions, a fundamental idea of automation is that the moment you automate something well enough, the user’s expectation quickly adapts to the automation and demands the next bit of automated personalized tweak. The assumption that the user’s demand will stay the same or even grow at a steady pace wherever automation becomes available is a poor one.

Just as in my day job, I must develop models that “evolve” in the right direction with parameters which adapt to the situation, ironically the idea of a static “40” hour work week is practically irrelevant to the dynamic changes in the value creation chain today. Most high skill and low skill jobs require longer hour-work-weeks to justify the cost of the employee to the organization.

So while conventional ideas about work paint a picture of 40 hour, 5-day work weeks, 9am-5pm jobs, with expected retirement at age 65, all of this is becoming rapidly irrelevant. So what does it actually look like? What is the reality? What is it going to look like in the near future? This is what I talk about in The Future of Work, but first Now & the Near Future.

Assault

An unfeeling world
A cage
Could you escape?

Conform conform conform
To an older man’s importance
Could you escape?

Some want sex
Some want beauty
And some want duty

Could you escape?

Tie you in shackles of righteousness
If you tried
But who should you abide?

That people exist with no questions,
Sheep
That people exist unanswered,
f&#$!! (bleep)
That rebels exist,
wallowing, deep

Why must some enjoy their disgusting lust?
Why must some innocence go bust?
Why must you unfeeling living dead go on as if nothing happened thus?

You sad pieces of living s*?!t
Know this
Someday it will bury you
In a heartless pit
Destroy your meaningless bliss

With every breath
You sleep in your living death

Not even a semblance of worth
A weight upon centuries of earth

~Aaksha Meghawat

Dedicated to

The Not-so-Golden Ratio: What are the Odds?

This post is written as a third part in a series of blog posts: “The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Where are they?” and “The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Why Should I Care?

I have spoken a little bit about “attention” in “Why Should I Care”. And hinted at several reactions to it in . Here I want to talk about navigating this attention that flows from demand to supply. I am not sure where to begin. This attention is such a woefully incorrect picture of the world that awaits you outside. And it will most likely render you so terribly unprepared for the blatant patriarchy that is headed your way at lightning speed, that you will mostly be blindsided by it. What do I mean by this? I will elaborate on that wave a little further down. 

Most of the issues surrounding women boil down to skewed narratives. There was a graph I talked about in “Where are they” . This graph shows how the number of women studying Computer Science took a decisive downturn between 1980-85. Researchers are still working on this puzzle. The most popular theory at the moment for the drop of women in computer science is that the narrative around coding and women took a negative turn at some point. It is an ongoing study but whether further research dispels this or not, the fact remains, your personal experiences will be at odds with some of the common narratives surrounding women.

The easiest place to be in is to not have a problem with any narrative. That you are at complete peace with the world as it exists. And that wave of patriarchy that I was talking about is not anticipated to be a problem because you don’t care, don’t observe it and frankly speaking can’t imagine being bothered by it. If this is the case, most of this piece is irrelevant, before leaving please scroll down and take a look at the last section. Pretty please.

For the rest, I want to start with:

Don’t pay Attention to the ‘attention’

Here’s a thought exercise I have for you. Imagine a guy came up to you and said, I would like you to be a part of my group because it is good for vaguely defined concepts like diversity and inclusion. And I may not want to state this directly but because it may help my dating life. And for all of this I am willing to do the “favor” of “lowering the bar” for you.

Would you agree to join this person? If you said ‘yes’, again feel free to skip most of this article and scroll down.

There are 2 major problematic aspects of this attention. Say you inadvertently or willingly joined a group/individual which for whatever reason thinks that they have lowered the bar to let you in. What exactly do you imagine your future is going to be like with them? 

You see, there are no free lunches, ever. It may sometimes seem great in the beginning, but the moment you try to negotiate for something more meaningful from the group/individual e.g. support, autonomy, control of resources, that relationship will fall through. Because, from their perspective they have done you a “favor” by “lowering the bar”. In the long run it is not going to end well. This is the reason why we have to deal with phenomenon like ‘glass ceiling’, ‘gender pay gap’ etc. Because someone may have ‘included’ you, but they still are not convinced that you deserve to be there.

There are only 2 ways of escaping the unhappy ending. 1) Never demanding more meaningful things (i.e. self fulfillment). 2) Changing the perception of it being a ‘favor’.

For (1), you know the drill, skip and scroll to the last section. Changing perception is a long, hard, thankless process for which at the very minimum you need to do good work. Cutting to the chase, due to the skewed ratio a lot of attention will flow your way to join and show up for many things. Some of you might even feel the pressure to show up just to compensate for the skewed ratio. However I would like to re-emphasize the principle of Occam’s razor for time management that I described in “Extracurricular“. Quantity and Quality, one at the expense of another basically doesn’t work.

The 2nd major problem is confusing “attention” with Respect. Simply put, they are not the same. And for some women this new found attention is so novel, taking it too seriously leads right to an adult version(*1) of princess syndrome. The princess syndrome has quite a few negative side effects. The worst effect being how it prevents any meaningful (but much required) change in narratives surrounding women.

Wave of Patriarchy

I have mentioned this so called wave of patriarchy as a reality in complete contrast to the scenario the undue attention might paint for you. Here’s what I mean. As you start to graduate and try to figure out what you “really” want to do with your life, many near and dear ones will start ringing wedding bells in your ears. Notice how that discourse treats you. Everything about your future: location, plans, goals, wishes, (even your name), rights to your time, rights to your income will be up for negotiation. You will mostly be referred to and addressed as a liability. Suddenly every digit added to your age will become a huge deal. Suddenly associating yourself with men at least half a decade older to you will become completely acceptable. You will notice how your current level will be compared to a man 4-5 years older than you I.e. someone who has had ‘x’ years of a head start.  

This basic calculation gaffe of society stumps me to this day. If we are evaluating the suitability of an older man for a younger woman, shouldn’t one also project the woman’s life that many years ahead to make a fair comparison? Apparently this never occurred to generations past and completely escapes most women of our generation too. (So, please don’t make that error). I personally have been part of conversations where young female acquaintances, failing to answer me proceeded to impress upon me how much bigger their older husband’s professional status/bank balance etc. was in life. Implying I would have a hard time getting there if I put in the same number of years. (Wow, so much for your support miss! :|).

Most of the conversation surrounding marriage optimizes for the man’s self actualization and for the women’s survival. More brutally, the bar for you is survival, without much consideration for what else you bring to the table. (*2).

There’s also this usual trope among some patriarchal girls that if they are X, their husbands should be X++. I am not playing a blame game here. This kind of a mindset is encouraged by our parents, culture. The kind where the entire point of your education is viewed as a piece of jewelry, to negotiate a better husband from your community. Moreover it is reinforced by misguided definitions of masculinity where sometimes it goes the other way. If the guy is Y, necessarily his partner must be Y- -. Is it really that much of a stretch of imagination to ask for, to attempt at being the ‘++’ for someone’s X?

A photograph I captured of the John Lennon Wall in Prague in 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lennon_Wall

And again, it still amazes me that some sections of my extended circle, mostly older generations could only make peace with my professional success and drive for independence as they saw it as a technique to find a better, more educated husband. To this day, I find their lack of imagination about my life, irksome at best, disgusting at worst.

Mentorship

Male patriarchy is not the only issue though. It is by now a fairly well accepted idea that for many complicated reasons, women are not always good at supporting each other. Of many such relationships I want to focus on the one of mentorship. It is easy to mess this relationship up. The many problematic narratives associated with women results in a wide variety of baggages. While you may have developed your own mechanism to deal with it, it is very hard to be open with someone whose baggage may differ vastly from yours. But it is the same thing at the end of the day, baggage. And then there is also the age gap which introduces a natural time gap between the baggages two similar groups of women may develop. 

In an ideal world they would be able to help and learn from each other in dealing with these because the differing baggages are temporal-local instances of the same abstract inequalities, of the same thing expressed slightly differently in time. In fact it is because of cumulative actions of many ordinary women over significant swathes of time that narratives shift and your particular life has become easier (or occasionally harder). In reality however it is very hard to remember and appreciate this.

I remember at a NLP conference in the US one day, a BITSian female junior walked up to me out of the blue and went on to inform me: “I think you are a very sad person. You are super quiet and don’t seem to talk much.” I had never met this girl prior to this infantile accusation, and ofcourse had never had a conversation with her before this. Now you see, I care a lot about the issue of younger women who have walked and will walk the same path as me (its the reason I’ve now written an odd 5ooo words on the subject)so I did a little digging around. And it turns out that this specially affected case of princess syndrome walked up to me because she somehow felt that I needed to recognize her. Apparently I was on her checklist for acknowledgement thanks to a presumed BITSian connection.

While the changing times (thanks to the efforts of many men and women who have come before her), had done a great job of letting her know the historic odds she has beaten, is it that hard to factor in a little consideration for all the efforts that went in to make this possible? Of the communities of ordinary men and women who went ahead and did the right thing in their own small and big ways?

I had been rudely jolted into the realization that I now occupy that stage in my career where younger women are going to have expectations from me. And thanks to the skewed ratio, the exhaustion that follows from regular challenges and battles I face myself and their own baggages (like the princess syndrome in this case) I will be perceived to fall short.

Another time, in a conversation with a younger girl I was tackling the touchy topic of dating. I was trying to impress on the fact that it is hard to say ‘no’ to the right things. Staying single or alone or without a gang or without a community is always incredibly hard but I was insisting that waiting to find the right partner would make a transformational shift in her life experience and was therefore worth the trouble. This advice was tossed aside when this person informed me that “well, just because you got lucky does not mean everyone will”. In a different set of circumstances I would have laughed but the irony was just too excruciating. For someone who spent most of their 20s realizing just how much of an outsider I was for the world, I had felt anything and everything but lucky.

You see, this was 2 exhaustions colliding with each other. Just as 2 wrongs don’t make a right, 2 exhaustions do not produce something constructive, similarly 2 baggages do not a good mentorship make. It seemed like just yesterday that I was standing closer to the beginning, searching for someone to look up to, for someone to mentor me. And now I stand a little further up the chain. The conclusion is not very grand, anti-climactic even: Make some room for everyone’s baggage. If there’s nothing you can do to help up or down the chain, let it pass. 

This leads me to the main takeaway I want to emphasize for this whole piece:

Please don’t make it Worse

I have talked about the joint probability chains that result in a funnel. And then how the funnel leads to a skewed gender ratio. And then how other problematic cultural aspects load onto this to lead to havoc. To survive all of this you need to be very lucky, talented, strong and smart about maneuvering the many spanners that will be thrown in your works. In this piece I also at various points ask people to scroll down to the last section. This is that last section.

To quote a dialog from the excellent TV series Home Before Dark – “Familiarity brings Comfort. And Comfort brings Safety. And for most people Safety is more important than the Truth”. Our cultural and historic discourse wants to familiarize us with only a single, self serving idea of what a woman should be. Many words float around in my mind but I am a little tired of making sense of them. Anything that is not familiar, is not comfortable, possibly unsafe no matter how close it is to the truth.

As I was growing up and putting in the work to change the narrative surrounding my life, to shed some light on my truth, it inspired a proportional backlash in the form of isolation and ostracism, a lot of times spearheaded by other women. Your attempts at changing the narrative will provide an unwanted damning contrast to some people’s hyprocrisy, inspiring a backlash that will seem to come out of nowhere. Directly in proportion to how much the contrast highlights their actions (and lack thereof).

Please don’t be that person. 

You and I reading and writing this stand at some point in the funnel. Everyone of us is here because of many reasons like: slipping ‘up’ the cracks, extraordinary privilege and/or extraordinary merit. We may not appreciate this but we have beat some incredible historical odds to be standing here. I personally believe in the power of storytelling and that one single successful story makes it that much easier for many others. That a single submission makes it that much harder for many others to escape their mental bondages.

In my short life, some people have gone on to take painstaking efforts to remind me that it is not an obligation for them to do much with this privilege. Maybe so. But please, please don’t make it worse. If there is a journey or struggle you don’t understand and don’t want to do much about, at least don’t make it harder. At the very least, don’t fucking make it worse.

Epilogue

If you find yourself wondering why I wrote all of this, I answer that here.

Appendix

*1- What I mean by adult versions of princess-prince syndrome is this class of people who confuse ‘attention’ with respect and interpret it as a measure of how ‘important’ they are. Such people usually graduate to then assuming that their needs are above everyone else’s needs and points of view. Moreover, the greed for attention keeps growing with time. You will notice how such people love discussing themselves at length in any and every conversation.  They will cultivate so called ‘friendships’ only with people who are willing to satisfy this need, in which case you are not actually a friend but simply a member of their ever growing audience.

*2- I mean there is the whole messy business of financial gifts/expectation flowing from the bride’s family to the groom’s family etc. etc. but that is for another day, another blogpost.

The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Why Should I Care?

This post is written as the second part of a series of blog posts starting with: “The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Where are they?”

I’m never one to mince my words so I would like to state it directly. The 1:7 (F:M) ratio is obviously going to create some supply-demand issues. Lets make it more (brutally) clear. There is an oversupply, under-demand of men and overdemand, under-supply of women. This creates some interesting unhealthy power imbalances. Add the cultural baggage of history and society and we are basically set up for failure, welcome Havoc. 

This imbalance starts playing out in the first few weeks itself at BITS Pilani during “interactions”. Every department, club and group, at least on the face of it tries to boost its “gender diversity”. The motivations for this are not very straight forward though as there is another factor at play here. 

On any given day, dating and sex are loaded issues that many different kinds of societies/demographics struggle to handle in any meaningful way. One of the outcomes of this in India is that we never discuss these topics much in schools and homes. A young person has to resort to picking up and deciphering implicit cues from parents, teachers, religion, media (and each other!) to make up their own minds.

Naturally, we also pick up on the hypocritical censorship of sexual relationships. What does that mean? It is apparently ridicule-worthy enough to simply express interest in another person for dating purposes. You have to do it opaquely, through a long drawn flirtatious dance which starts with creating “natural” situations where you are in proximity of the opposite gender. Cue all the undue “attention” flowing from demand to supply during “interactions” and recruitments and everywhere else where it is misplaced.

Mind you, this is just “attention”.

And mind you, this creates a problem for everyone. People who fail at doing it usually find it easier to fall into the “girls-have-it-easy” chant. People who do succeed at it mostly create more problems than make things better for anyone in the long run. And the target of such attention, girls have some amazing reactions to it. These range from distraction, insecurity, overestimating the meaning and importance of it to downright adult versions of princess-prince syndrome. (*1)

So, it usually sucks.

At this point it would be tempting to say “Oh, just chill out, this is the natural cycle of life and mating, why you so serious?”. (Some might even add, “You were a girl right, didn’t you enjoy all the attention?”) 

Well, I wouldn’t be “so serious” and possibly “enjoy” something except that I have been at the receiving end of this unhealthy attention quagmire and I think it has some serious implications.

On Campus

Let me start with a trivial example. In my first year we had this course called ‘Workshop I’, which was an assortment of tasks related to carpentry, CNC machines etc. Even before we started the course, the word on the street was that “girls have it easy” because they can get away with some tasks after throwing around a few smiles. I didn’t really understand this until I actually entered the workshop. Some maintenance dude at the workshop was willing to help out the girls a little more than usual with the carpentry task. Needless to say I didn’t really enjoy this weird interaction with this dude where some girlish behavior was expected from me, failed spectacularly at the task and came out of the whole experience quite unsettled. For the next 4 years I watched batch after batch perpetuating this ‘word on the street’. It still amazes me that for all the IQ and so-called intelligence that BITS is supposed to filter for, not one, let me repeat that, not a single male peer in my 4 years ever wondered, “Hey Aaksha, did that guy ever creep you out?”. Not one guy considered the possibility that this throwing-around-a-smile business could have been unwanted and creepy for the girl.

In the larger scheme of things (i.e. even outside the BITSian context), it still amazes me to this day how easily people accept this narrative. That it is the onus on the girl to be attractive. And that if she is receiving a perceived freebie, she should be both morally responsible and at fault for it.

The media discourse and social media echo chambers’ coverage of sexual assault allegations, lawsuits, divorce settlements etc. may have us believe that the public sympathizes with the woman. However, with the exception of ‘extreme’ cases, the discourse in our homes, schools, temples, and other cultural spaces of society i.e. when no one is looking, is very different. I could write another 1000 words on navigating this bullshit but I will keep that for another day. I do not want to digress.

Coming back, this will play out subtly in most aspects of BITSian life. As I have already written a bit about how to navigate the web of departments and clubs in Extracurricular:
Groups which are formed around hobbies or interests (like ‘Clubs’ in the BITSianverse) have better anchors for their vetting process. Groups (like ‘Departments’/college fest organizing teams) which don’t have such clearly defined needs are more subjective.

The higher the subjectivity, the more chance that you will be able to recruit and are being recruited for something other than your abilities or passion. Some will do it to create the aforementioned natural proximity. And further, some others will have the audacity to call it “lowering-the-bar”(*2). It is tempting to argue that all of this is inconsequential but this kind of behavior has long term repercussions. 

In my final year, two aspiring BITSian male comedians created a web series of satirical videos on the BITSian life. One such video depicts a placement (job) interview. A guy goes in for a coding interview. He is asked several programming questions. Next, a well-dressed petite girl goes in. The male interviewer starts smiling, tries to make small talk, asks her about her hobbies, likes and dislikes. At the end of the day placement results reveal that it was the girl who got the job, not the guy. The video implies that it was enough for the girl to be cute to get the job.

The one person the video, the camera angle and dialogs don’t focus on is the interviewer. What exactly was the interviewer’s moral standing when he did a professional “favor” for a young woman to curry a potential sexual return in the future. How come this whole incident is interpreted less often as “whats-up-with-desperate guys” and more often as “girls-have-it-easy”?

You see, because this symbolic interviewer was at some point a student like you and me. Whose behavior was not even worth a little bit of ridicule and considered normal even after going through several years of so called ‘education’.

It is easy to project one’s sexual frustrations on the other gender but the seeds for why you find yourself in this situation were sown by many who came before you, much before you.

The Timelessness of Incorrigibility

Here’s a series of mental animations that I noticed started playing out in my mind every time I met a young closeted male chauvinist and was expected to put up with their not-so-casual sexism with a smile. Their hair became whiter, a few wrinkles and a paunch started to emerge. They started resembling some of the older men I have met who have expected me to put up with their not-so-casual sexism with a smile. Similarly when I was standing in the company of these older men, another set of mental animations played out. They acquired darker hair, became slimmer, leaner, plump cheeks, healthy skin with jovial faces. I imagined what “jokes” that older man might have shared with his friends when he was younger. The sexism that years of life experiences had augmented/reinforced to culminate in the exact sexist statements I had the misfortune of listening to. I wonder what opinions the younger man might share with his colleagues in the future unchanged by his life’s successes and blows when he is older. 

Because you see, ultimately it is the same kind of incorrigible person, unable to think outside the convention of his/her times. In the past it was the same person who told your mother that she belonged to the kitchen and exists primarily for child-bearing. In the future it will be the same kind of person who will tell your daughter that she can’t do X because she is a girl. Substitute X with any number of things needed for her self actualization.

Locker room Talk”

If the situation wasn’t so dire, I would laugh at the inability of young men to see how much they are losing out because of patriarchy . If you don’t have enough options to date and you are doing stupid things because of that, its not because girls didn’t make it to your schools and within your “natural proximity”. Its because a generation of men and women before you didn’t let their daughters, wives and sisters make it to your school. I personally don’t enjoy crass simplifications of social issues but if Facebook, Sacred Games, GoT etc. have taught me anything, it is this: provocation apparently works. Instead of objectifying and making fun of girls’ body parts in the proverbial locker room talk, here’s a version of the locker room talk that would be more appropriate for our realities:

Khud toh tharki line marta phirta tha, abhi social media par ‘rational arguments’ deneka hai usko against ‘feminazis’
Baap dada, 18 main shaadi karaadi maa ki, padhaya bhi nahi, head of the family samajhtein hai apne aap ko
Haan bey, meri behen ko toh bachpan main hi bol diya, 22 ke baad idhar se kat lena
Haan yaar meri dadi ne jo meri maa ka tel nikala hai, woh saala cricket match dekhne main busy rehta tha
Kya kanjus tha be, ek plate bhi idhar se udhar rakha nahi kabhi, aur maa ko bolta hai, roti-kapda-makaan dene ke liye, meri puja kar
Mereko toh bada kiya nahi, upar se bola, mera naam laga naam ke peeche

Pardon my fantasy flight here, I got a little carried away. But hey, isn’t that the excuse thrown about for locker room talk, boys-will-be-boys and actions of mobs when they come together? I’d like to emphasize, I don’t derive any pleasure whatsoever from this locker room talk but I do want to highlight something. You see, you may be feeling like shutting me down which many peers have done for me on online forums. But before shutting me down, could you spend a moment thinking back to how many times have you stopped that friend who was willing to do anything for a girl, like anything to get into her pants and enlightened him on his debauchery. How many times have you shut down a friend indulging in Trump-esque-grab-em-by-the-pussy locker room talk vs. shut down a female friend who just couldn’t be ‘rational’ and ‘reasonable’ when expressing her frustrations with her life experiences, with the same ferocity and derision.

You may have ‘schooled’ a female in real life or on social media , and got a million likes from your male friends, giving you the delusion that ‘Oh see, I am so right, I know how to think straight, that other female is just a feminazi who fails to see the big picture and can’t think outside her I-am-a-victim mentality’. Because while you may blame a so called feminazi who can’t think outside her I-am-a-victim mentality, you might just be displaying ‘I-am-too-entitled’ mentality.

It is going to be exhausting to have any kind of rational perspective on this issue because of the attention deficit staring in your face and playing out everyday in your life. Remember that exhaustion. As I described in “Where are they?” This is the legacy we have been given, the baggage passed onto us by older dysfunctional systems.

The Weight of History

When you finally realize the weight of history in front of your eyes, messing with your sexual cravings, that the complicated, twisted gender imbalances in society are very much your problem, and that most likely you are going to be a part of the problem and not the solution, unless you have any capacity for courage and independence of thought (left after an education system that actively attempts to thwart both), you will feel helpless. In my experience, it is one of the hardest, most exhausting ideas to keep in your head. Most people can’t and won’t. It is simply easier, just like your father and his father and his mother and the ones who came before him to generalize. It is just easier to think to yourself: “Oh this human being is born with a few different body parts, there has to be something intellectually, emotionally, inherently problematic with them. Religion and culture are on my side anyway”. You get an ego bump as a side bonus.

I was sitting in London in my final year of BITS coding away in a friend’s apartment when he balked at his screen. His face spelt horror so I asked him, “whats up?” He managed to mumble something about the Nirbhaya rape case. This rape case caught India’s imagination over the next few days. There were a lot of protests and some soul searching. The national conversation was awash with questions about the physical safety of women. I remember being in one such discussion where a younger male colleague cried out in exasperation, “really is it THAT unsafe for you?” This question took me by surprise and it dawned on me how separated my reality was from the other gender. Things that I could never take for granted like what time to leave a party, how many people were there around me in a room, bus or train or how far I was from a safe space etc. were not even factors for another half of humanity.

Periodically such atrocious incidents capture the national imagination. (They happen far more often though IRL). Most people seem to be confused about why these “random” acts of violence take place. Thank god for the ‘MeToo’ movement which set the record straight a little bit at least. (Yours truly being very much a victim of such an assault). Which is to say that these acts are not really ‘random’. They are very much the outcome of our cultural subjugation of women. We like to sleep at night thinking that we caught the specific perpetrators of these acts and solved the problem somewhat. However clearly the problem is nowhere close to being solved. It allows some people, especially the intellectual and cultural male guardians of our times to set a low bar and avoid the issue of ‘psychological safety’ of women completely. I’ll take a page out of Noam Chomsky’s timeless exposition on ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’: “As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions.”

I would like to end with this. You are not obligated to think about the other gender. You are not obligated to think or care about anybody. (Which way you choose, whether to care or not is going to however determine the quality of your life and future). Still there is one entity in your life that you must think about and for whom I do not believe that I need to make a case(*3). That entity is your mother. Do yourself a favor and run through this thought exercise. Imagine her when she was your age standing at the edge of her youth and prime. What was being told to her? What messages had society given to her about her life and what she should do with it vs. what you have been given? Did she stand a chance at self actualization? How did that shape her choices, life and freedoms (or lack thereof). 

Don’t do it as a favor. Don’t do it for charity. Don’t do it even to be ethical(what does that mean anyway?). Do it because you for better or worse have acquired the label of being ‘intelligent’. Do it for survival. Do it because if you cannot even think from the perspective of your mother, stand in her shoes for a minute, you will not be able to discern how you are yourself being taken for a ride by the educational, financial, religious and media systems surrounding you. Do it to get better at the game of life.

Epilogue

One month into BITS Pilani, I had joined or been recruited to some groups. There was this senior guy in one of these groups who decided that it was completely valid for him to force me to eat from the same plate as him in a group dinner. He sat next to me at the beginning of dinner, a few minutes later slid my plate away as food arrived. And then proceeded to serve himself large helpings of food, presumably for both of us. For sometime he kept asking me to take a bite from this common plate. It took me a while to process what was happening, and at first I was just surprised at the audacity of the whole thing. I started defying the situation by trying to make conversation with other people and ignoring this guy, not having a bite ever throughout the whole episode. As dinner progressed and other people’s jokes and conversations settled down, this guy’s nudges became louder and clearer. My appetite long gone, by now I was frantically running calculations of good ways to quietly slip away from the situation without being noticed. Unfortunately, this was close to the center of the table. This nonsense went on for some more time. Finally, this ordeal of a dinner was over and I walked back to my cycle. And sped off in the opposite direction as soon as everyone was out of sight. 

I was quite disturbed by the situation. To this day I wonder what went on in other people’s minds as they saw this whole thing play out. The questions that raced through my mind were: “Is this the modus operandi here?”, “Why did that guy think he had the right to display such unabashed coercion?”, “Why exactly was I recruited to this group?

After some consideration, I decided that I would let my actions speak for me. I decided that if I overcompensated by focusing on the group’s work over the semester, it would send the right signal and such future advances would be discouraged. Of course it wasn’t that simple. Over the next few months I watched in horror as such advances were attempted at other girls in the group and some even seemed to enjoy it. Meanwhile my own personal journey got harder and harder because a pretty and petite frame such as mine and the cultural stereotype that comes along with it was quite at odds with the goals I had set for myself. As the advances did not stop, I kept becoming sterner, quieter and less open as a person. I put in many sleepless nights working towards the keynote event of this group. After the event we had a review session during which many people doubled down on me criticizing many aspects of my efforts. However some girls who enjoyed the former kind of ‘attention’ continued to be a welcome part of the group and (without ever raising a finger for any stated work goals of the group) accumulated more ‘social capital’ than I ever could have . I can only imagine that many guys in my cohort observed the same thing. In this situation it would be understandable if some of them concluded that ‘girls have it easy’. It is disappointing though that so many of them don’t consider that these situations are not easy for a lot of girls and that these kinds of modus operandi further discourage girls who could break such vicious behavior.

Anyway, personally that review session was the last straw. Something broke inside me and I found it hard to trust most people at BITS Pilani moving forward. It took a lot of effort to get over this with the help of some amazing people (interestingly mostly men) I met later on in life .

I do believe that everyone would have been better off if people could be more straight forward about their intentions and did not have to resort to this kind of bullshit to find dates. And I still wonder what stops the same men from doing the same thing as they step out into real life with people who may someday in the future report to them? (Or does it?). I wonder if the stringent harassment policies that men’s rights activists have such a problem with, have a role to play in stopping such behavior?

Appendix

*1- Of course there is the occasional fairy tale here and there but we’ll leave that under the category of exceptions or good marketing 😛

*2- There is a more problematic context in which this concept exists and I talk about it here.

*3- Because if I have to make a case even for this, I am pretty sure such a reader did not survive this far into the post and/or our basic premises in life are so different that most of what I have said would be lost or futile to that reader’s mind

Worth a read: The Story Behind BITS Pilani’s Girls’ Hostel Curfew Removal

The Not-so-Golden Ratio: Where are they?

This post is written in continuation of Musings on a BITSian Life: Basics and Musings on a BITSian Life: “Extracurricular”

In “Basics”, I wanted to address one elephant in the room. I call it that because that issue has a lot of bullshit surrounding it. My goal was to take that as a use case and demonstrate the act of building a framework. A framework to arrive at one’s own decision strategy.

I want to address another, larger, more complicated and more important elephant in the room. It is one of gender ratio. The despicable and obstinate gender ratio of 1:7 (F:M) that has persisted over the past decade in (Indian) undergraduate engineering batches (*Data Sources).

This matter is so complicated and by now I have been part of so many painful conversations, arguments that I hear a collective sigh. That is, an imaginary collective sigh echoing through my ears of a group of young people dealing with the gendered legacy passed on to us by the older generations. And there is hardly any acknowledgement of it, leave alone training or emotional tools to deal with it. 

So, one of the most common manifestations of this baggage is the question…

“Where are they?”

A question I hear often stated explicitly or framed implicitly. If I had a dollar for the number of times an older, younger or contemporary male has engaged with me in the following questions, I would be a millionaire:

“If women were as smart as you claim them to be, where are they?”
“Dude, come on, if so many men can crack these competitive exams, and women can’t, there must have to be some kind of deficiency, I mean it’s a pattern right?”
“So I guess we have to lower the bar now for more of them to get here?”

No, no. Don’t get me wrong. Simply asking the question is not wrong. However why and how you ask this question (out loud or in your head) is very important. Firstly, you are neither original for thinking it (in your head). Neither are you a trailblazer for asking it (out loud). You have plenty of company. In history. In government. In education. In laws. Take any aspect of society and you have plenty of company in asking it. So that moment when this question arises in your mind, remember to take a step back and recognize it as a larger echo of our society. This question and that moment is the legacy of our past generations. Remember that.

It is politically incorrect to ask this question but not for reasons that you might think so. Does it offend women? Yeah sure. Does it make you sound like a douche? Yes, maybe, depending on how you frame it. But this is not why it is weird to ask this question. The reason it is weird to ask this question is because up until recently society already had an answer for it. And our current society is designed assuming that that answer was correct. 

What do you mean?

Here are some examples of spectacular female scientists and the sentences that surround the description of their life stories:

Kamala Sohonie : “her application was turned down by the then-Director and Nobel Laureate Prof. C V Raman on the grounds that women were not considered competent enough to pursue research”….“She will not spoil the environment of the lab (she should not be a ‘distraction’ to the male researchers)”… “Though Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded. I can never forget the way he treated me just because I was a woman. Even then, Raman didn’t admit me as a regular student. This was a great insult to me. The bias against women was so bad at that time. What can one expect if even a Nobel Laureate behaves in such a way?”
Lise Meitner : “…women were not allowed to attend public institutions of higher education in Vienna…”, “she and Otto Frisch did not share in the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for nuclear fission, which was awarded exclusively to her long-time collaborator Otto Hahn. Several scientists and journalists have called her exclusion ‘unjust’”….”According to the Nobel Prize archive, she was nominated 19 times for Nobel Prize in Chemistry between 1924 and 1947, and 29 times for Nobel Prize in Physics between 1937 and 1965”
Mary Somerville : “I resented the injustice of the world in denying all those privileges of education to my sex which were so lavishly bestowed on men”….. “The Morning Post declared in her obituary that ‘Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science”
Nan Laird : “I had to make choices early in my career….My first husband and I separated when I entered graduate school, and, as a single mother, I jealously guarded my time for the sake of my son….I decided to eliminate activities that did not lead to academic publications or teaching success….It was always a surprise to me that many men do socialize at work.”
Henriette von Aigentler: “She was refused permission to audit lectures unofficially.”
James Barry : “Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley and was known as female in childhood. Barry lived as a man in both public and private life, at least in part in order to be accepted as a university student and pursue a career as a surgeon, with Barry’s birth sex only becoming known to the public and to military colleagues after death.”

This is a small sample. You must be thinking, “So what? How does that answer “Where are they?” And why should I care why it is politically incorrect to ask that?”

1 – For most of modern history, Culture, Law and Religion have operated on the underlying idea that women do not possess the cognitive abilities and objectivity for science and engineering. (*2) They form a richly vicious self-sustaining feedback loop augmenting this idea in each other’s spheres. Every time some reform is attempted in one sphere, it is quickly inadequate in the face of feedback forces from other spheres.

For a moment imagine if we did not have the artificial barriers that women have faced over several centuries. We would today be talking of Noetherian Mechanics, Somervillean distributions or Hypatia’s Theorems. Young boys and girls like you and me would not be raised with faulty notions and unnecessary damaging doubts regarding one half of human species’ capability to do something.

Thanks to the insurmountable battles fought by a few men and women over the past decades to change the narrative, and painstaking research by psychologists, we have hardcore evidence that this underlying notion is nonsense. However large sections of humanity spanning multiple age, income and education brackets have completely missed the memo. 

If an alien read Indian memes,“its-just-a-joke” conversations that do the rounds on WhatsApp, or listened extensively to the conversations of husbands and young men over the past 100 years (if not more), it would seem that taking cheap digs at the feminine self esteem was the prevalent national sport, not cricket. “women can’t drive”, “wives are a nag”, “too emotional”, “too talkative” are several manifestations of the same thing, cheap digs at the feminine self esteem. In Silicon Valley this ugly zeitgeist surfaces its head regularly, sometimes by way of so-called “logical”, “rational” manifestos like these.

Any reasonably emancipated woman with some capacity of independent thought knows that this idea is nonsense. However convention is heavily armed against her. You, the unsuspecting young person are standing in the middle. This is why it is politically incorrect to ask this question. Convention is so sure about its wrong answer that it has religious laws and cultural norms going back 100s of years for backup in the face of any doubt. However, walk up to a young girl who’s spirit has not yet been thwarted or an older woman who survived society’s assault on her self esteem and you will find an attempt at compensating for this deficit.

Still doesn’t answer ‘where are they’?

The Funnel

2 – There is this concept of joint probability. While it is much easier to model probabilities of binary events like admissions conditioned on single factors, in reality it is a multi-variate problem. For an event to actually happen in real life, its joint probability has to multiply out in its favor. 

Why is this relevant?”

Just as an example, math performance on national tests have demonstrated no gender disparities in many countries. However this does not necessarily translate into better female representation in engineering or sciences. Because this is just one factor. For a girl to survive the journey to becoming a scientist/engineer (or anything meaningful in any career/endeavor), many probabilities have to work out in her favor to make it there. Here’s an example funnel:

The Funnel
The Funnel

In my personal experience I have met many men who have expressed outright disbelief that young girls still face such barriers. However hard it is to accept it, the reality is sadly just that. While growing up I heard some form of all of it. These are the exact verbatim sentences I have heard, no matter how well I did at school or may do in life:
~~
“Ab khana banana sikhado, ladkiyon ki jagah kitchen main hi hai” / “High time she learnt cooking, girls belong to the kitchen”
“Beta badhai ho 1st aane ke liye…Par ghar ka kaam to tumhe hi sambhalna padega” / “Congratulations dear on topping your school, but you still have to take responsibility of the house”
“Engineer kyun banna hai? Ladkiyan toh doctor banti hain” / Why do you want to become an engineer? Girls usually become doctors.”
“Shaadi ke baad sheher aur job toh change tumhe hi karne padenge” / “Well, after marriage you will have to be the one to move cities and change jobs”
“Aap beti ko US bhej rahe hain? Log toh bete ki padhai par itna kharcha karte hain.”/ “You are sending your daughter to the US? People generally spend that much only for a son’s education.”(*3)
~~
“There needs to be a shift in how families and female students think about professional choices for women. A large percentage of women decide not to join IITs despite having qualified the exam—their decision to opt out is a huge loss to the institutions and to the society at large,” said Ruchira Shukla, regional lead, South Asia, venture capital-International Finance Corporation. “This is often driven by the misconception that engineering is not an ideal profession for women.” (2018) (*4)
“Every year, many highly talented women just miss a seat at the IITs. The main reason is societal biases that place geographical constraints on women and deny them equal access to preparation for the highly competitive JEE (Advanced) entrance exam,” said Timothy A Gonsalves, director, IIT Mandi. (2018) (*4)


Just in the case of Computer Science, the scenario is even more special (worse):

Source (worth a read): https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding


~~

If you happened to click on the wikipedia links I listed above of a few women in history, you may have noticed that they all have one thing in common. All of those women jumped unimaginable barriers, were able to pursue their passions and survived censorship in history only because atleast once in their lives they met or had a phenomenally open-minded backer. In some cases it was a male in the form of a father or husband. In some cases it was an extraordinarily protective & supportive maternal family. And in the last case, the person decided to live out her adult life as a male, seeing no other way to match her potential with her reality.

Next, I did not quote some of those verbatim sentences that followed me around while growing up to give an excuse. No, no, they never deterred me, not even for a moment. But this was only because I also have extraordinarily open-minded and exceptionally supportive and protective parents. It was them who put in the back breaking hard work to build walls that protected me from bullshit till I turned old enough to not let it break me. 

Everyone does not have this. 

I can only imagine that if you don’t have some counter balancing forces for this perennial undermining of your self-esteem, you would have to break and give in at some point. It is not an excuse for not doing something but it is also a reality that countless generations of women have faced and continue to face.

What you see at BITS is a ratio that is the outcome of many such funnels. Of many joint probability chains that never made it.  
There is a significant difference in the joint probability distribution for men and women. This is hard to see, especially in the backdrop of social media echo chambers, “apparent” focus on feminism and the “attention” women will get on campus. 

However it is these multivariate factors which are going to play out over the next few years in front of you. They have played out already to some extent as you stand at the gates of BITS Pilani. But its about to get “better” (by which I mean worse). This is what I want to talk about next. The Havoc. That lays ahead of you.

Epilogue

There is a 3rd reason it is politically incorrect to ask “Where are they?”. This is when you are not really asking a question but looking around for confirmation of your biases, and for company in your prejudice. The kind of thing people do with Facebook statuses and social media in general, seeking out their own echo chamber. It is not very hard to discern this intention. Because in the face of mounting evidence or information which fails to satisfy the bias, such people get super personal, super fast. They already have Convention to fall back on. In case a complete picture or more understanding or more nuance offers a good fight, the next best thing is a personal attack. “Who does she think she is?”, “I will prove to her via ostracism how unpopular and wrong she is”, “I met this one other girl in my life who fit my bias and that is proof enough that I am right and generations of women are wrong”. Again you are not alone. Look at the world around you. We live in a broken world because many so-called “great” men before you have done the same. It is easy, comfortable and you have plenty of company. I want to explore the implications of this so-called comfort, not for the world (who cares dude :P) but for You, in the coming sections: Why Should I Care? and What are the Odds?

I have also spent some time in this piece entertaining a hypothesis, the underlying notion that women lack some cognitive abilities. And also, that we live in such a godforsaken world that we require proof to dispel these ideas. While I was growing up, this idea seemed so illogical and preposterous to me that I could not imagine that someone would actually believe it. However, its repercussions had started affecting my life as early as a teenager. I was “that nerdy girl” Sheryl Sandberg talks about in her book “Lean In”. I was bossy, headstrong and either too quiet or too outspoken. It took me many years to put my life experiences as a young girl in perspective. 

Still, before entering BITS I naively assumed that the basic IQ filter applied via competitive exams would ensure some rationality and decency about gender equality. In reality though, it was but a stepping stone in a spectacular, repeated and successive shattering of my assumptions and comfort zones.

And I do want to cite 2 most poignant reminders of this ugly zeitgeist, which I faced very recently. One was where a fellow male student reminded me in a private discussion that women must ultimately learn to bend and bow in front of him because that is their place in life. This person had the highest imaginable honor you can think of in Indian competitive exams, went through years of engineering studies at the most elite institutions in India and will possibly design some of the more influential AI systems in the future.

And the 2nd was when a male peer at one of my workplaces informed me that the only way we could fix the representation of women in tech was by “lowering the bar”. This is another one of those “politically incorrect” concepts that I want to talk about because in my opinion it played a major role in the gendered experience of my undergraduate years. And contributed much to the Havoc that I want to talk about.

Appendix

(*Data Sources- I have been searching around for hard numbers for this infamous gender ratio and phenomenon that gets quoted often in media and otherwise. I would like to acknowledge this excellent set of data collected by Nirant Kasliwal. Some gender ratios for colleges other than BITS were quoted in this article by ET. PSA: I am totally in the market for more such objective pieces of data collection on other institutes across the country. Please let me know if you have similar numbers on institutions you attended and I would love to create a publicly available dataset out of them. Thanks!)

*2- This may come as a shock to some of you. Another name for this shock is acquiring historic perspective on modern inequalities and problems.

*3- Of course I wish I could show up in an invisibility cloak and capture such people’s expressions when my parents informed them that I was going to study on full scholarship.

*4- https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/services/education/to-improve-gender-ratio-at-iits-start-at-school-level/articleshow/63089610.cms

Musings on a BITSian Life: “Extracurricular”

This post is written as a supplement to “Basics” focusing on the time management aspects of student life. Somewhere in the space of the first few weeks at BITS Pilani, one goes through the semi-formal process of “Interactions”. It is an interesting melting pot where ideally you meet a wide variety of individuals. Variety in age, interests, ideology, background (economic strata, upbringing) etc. etc. It is actually a great time to meet new people because this period does not come around again for the rest of the year (and possibly, for the next 4 years).

“Interactions” for most part are a less objective (sometimes just plain dumber) version of campus “Placements” which you might choose to go through towards the end of your BITSian time.

Humor me for a bit here. Interactions or Placements both lie someplace on the spectrum of forms of “Vetting”. Why would you need to “vet” someone?

  • Check skills to satisfy a need.
  • Check for team/group “fit”

Figure 4: Vetting Process

Figure 5: And the lack of it.

The quality of the vetting process is directly proportional to how clearly and specifically the need is defined (Figure 4). 

As the need becomes less defined or less of a consequence, subjectivity takes over and the process suffers. Sometimes the subjectivity is channelized into finding team fit. Leading to the common phenomenon, “birds of a feather flock together”.

Groups which are formed around hobbies or interests (like ‘Clubs’ in the BITSianverse) have better anchors for their vetting process. Groups (like ‘Departments’/college fest organizing teams) which don’t have such clearly defined needs are more subjective.

Of course there are some “interactions” which don’t have any of the goals laid out above (Figure 5). In line with the direct proportion relation, they are purely subjective and the only needs being satisfied is some form of personal agenda (ego massage etc.).

In any case, this is not meant to be an in-depth review of the complicated social phenomenon by which people who have come before, handle people who come later (“ragging”, “hazing” etc. also falling into this category).

However, it is to highlight the weakness of the nascent impressions that will be formed about you and might follow you around for a while. These impressions will be extrapolated to project how “interesting” it might be to have you around in a club/group/department. Just as the first impression of your skills will be extrapolated to project how well you might fit to a job at the time of placements.

It is not that important what others make of you. First impressions can be changed (whether good or bad) and hopefully become irrelevant as you realize your priorities over the course of a BITSian life (and life in general). But it is very important what you make of it in terms of understanding your environment and what kind of “management” sits on top of you. It is a survey of the land and the best chance to do it.

Most people who don’t treat their time with care are unlikely to extend that care for yours. The thing that you as an individual cannot solve is bringing accountability to others for your time. Because this problem is bigger than you and BITS Pilani. It is a cultural and societal issue which manifests itself in many forms like the success of Bollywood, popularity of Facebook or the many failures of our education system, etc. (In this scenario, the only way to handle this is to practice a hard cutoff, which is what I want to come to next).

In my third year in college, I came across a wonderful letter written by Harry R. Lewis, then Dean of Harvard College and an esteemed Computer Scientist, for the fresh(wo)men joining Harvard in 2004. The last 2 pages of this letter are something that I found to be extremely relevant for a BITSian life. I want to quote verbatim, the most salient point of the letter here:

“Don’t try to do two major extracurricular activities simultaneously. Taking this advice requires classifying extracurricular commitments into “major,” of which you should probably have at most one, and “minor,” which might involve a meeting a week, a few hours of volunteering, or some recreational athletic participation that does more to relieve than to create stress. But if you’re starting on the varsity lacrosse team, you probably shouldn’t accept the lead in the House musical the same term. If you are the go-to person for a weekly publication, you probably shouldn’t also be the manager of a conference that will be bringing five hundred students to campus. There are exceptions to this rule too — some people are exceptionally good managers. But before you take on too many simultaneous major extracurricular commitments, you should at least pause to ask yourself if you are trying to prove to someone, either yourself or another, that you are superman or superwoman, and maybe even setting yourself up for failure in that endeavor. Or if, perhaps, you are trying to avoid studying a subject that no longer interests you.”

I know this to be good great advice because I was definitely one of those people who had signed up for way more than was ideal. With the gift of hindsight (in my third year and now), I wish I had followed this.

Most of rest of what I want to say and have concluded over the years is put together and summarized more eloquently than I can, in the letter above. Verbatim key points of that being:

  • Look inside yourself for the question you are really asking.
    (Something I have tried to elaborate upon in at least one BITSian context in Part1).
  • Join a student group and work to change it, rather than starting a new one.
  • Don’t ignore your health, physical and emotional.
  • Don’t expect yourself to be perfect.
  • Finally, don’t treat my advice — or anyone else’s — as rules you must follow!

And so I, end here.