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’? ”
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:
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):
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.
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.
(*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.