Vartika Bhandari, 40, ISC 1998 Board topper from Allahabad, is a senior staff software engineer with Google in San Francisco. Chaitra Chandrasekhar, 38, ICSE 1998 topper from a Bangalore school, is partner at consulting firm Oliver Wyman in New York. Jerene Mathews, 31, 2006 Class 12 CBSE topper from Kendriya Vidyalaya in Kottayam, is a paediatric dermatologist in Thiruvalla, Kerala.
These women may not have shattered the glass ceiling at their workplace yet but, surely, they are well on their way there, perched high up the ladder. And yet, as a four-month investigation by The Indian Express of 86 national school Board toppers — 51 men and 35 women — from 1996 to 2015 shows, their gender does matter.
Maybe not as much as it does among the “average” in their cohort, but its burden is inescapable: from their low representation in science and tech to fewer girl toppers going abroad than their male counterparts; from promising careers put on hold to those tailored to suit family obligations.
Fewer women have moved overseas than their men counterparts
More than half the toppers currently study or live overseas but among them, there is a significant gender gap. Just 40% (14 out of 35) of women toppers are studying/working abroad but for men, that ratio is 63%.
These numbers are small and should not lead to sweeping generalisations, says Poonam Batra, Professor of Education at Delhi University, but she acknowledges a “gender lens” is important to understand such trends.
“Gender often influences decision-making related to the education of children in a family. With the decline of academic standards in public universities and an increase in disposable income, many more privileged families are sending their children abroad for higher studies. It is usually the boy in the family who has an edge in such decisions. Such trends will, however, need to be researched rigorously, as contexts vary considerably.”
Swati Prusty, 27, who topped the Class 12 CBSE exam in 2010, says she was never too keen on settling abroad. Hence studying at a foreign university didn’t carry much appeal. “Since I knew I would work in India, it didn’t make sense to take a loan to study abroad and then come back to work for financial payoff reasons, among others,” she said, adding that she turned down a scholarship with National University of Singapore to pursue engineering in India.
“I wished to stay close to my parents so that I could travel (to Bhubaneswar) to meet them regularly. There is a sense of security about staying in your own country, with your own people that you don’t find elsewhere,” she said.
Prusty, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from BITS-Pilani and an MBA from IIM Bangalore, is now Strategy Consultant at L&T Infotech in Mumbai.
Family commitments stronger factor
While there is little difference in the academic goals of these achievers at the postgraduate level — roughly the same proportion of men (45%) and women (43%) toppers having either finished or still pursuing a Master’s degree — there is a gap at the higher research level. Only a fifth of women toppers have opted for a PhD as compared to a third of men.
Sohini Chaprala, 30, the 2008 Class 12 CBSE topper, is Research Manager at Innovations for Poverty Action, a non-profit founded by American economist Dean Karlan, in Dhaka.
After an MSc (Integrated) Economics from IIT-Kanpur, Chaprala was considering a PhD or another Master’s degree in public policy/administration but, she says, life had other plans.
“I got married and all priorities were re-configured — now, there are constraints on mobility and a longer commitment (such as PhD or an academic career) and that naturally regresses career. I’m not bitter about the social norms or my changed circumstances, but things would definitely have been different, career-wise, if I were not a woman,” says Chaprala, who has been managing her baby, career and long-distance marriage — her husband runs his business out of Hyderabad.
Women under-represented in STEM
The gender gap in undergraduate science education has been progressively closing over the last few years.
According to the 2018 edition of the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), for the first time, there were as many women as men in BSc programmes — of 48.19 lakh students enrolled, 50.7 per cent were men and 49.3 per cent women. Also, their presence at the Master’s level was the highest ever — in 2017-18, for every 100 men who enrolled for MSc, there were 171 women. Five years earlier, there were 138 women in BSc programmes for every 100 men.
While, as AISHE suggests, the gender gap in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) has been narrowing of late, the chasm is still way too large and is reflected at the apex, too, despite most of the national toppers being from the Science stream.
Seven of 10 male toppers have studied engineering as their undergraduate degree. Among women toppers, that number was only a third, with another quarter going for BCom or management.
Shalaka Kulkarni, 24, was among a dozen-odd girls in her class of about 130 during her days at IIT-Bombay, where she studied Electrical Engineering in 2012. “In the classroom, we all received equal treatment regardless of gender. However, I did observe that boys participated in class much more than girls, they gave answers more often. Like me, a lot of girls sometimes thought their answers might not be correct and refrained from participating,” said Kulkarni, who topped the ICSE Board in 2012 with 98.8% and is now pursuing an MBA from Yale School of Management.
This under-representation in STEM undergraduate programmes mirrors the broader trend of women being starkly missing in STEM jobs, which are among the higher paying jobs in today’s economy.
Less than one-fifth of the women toppers currently working are employed in the STEM sector; among employed men toppers, close to two-fifths are in STEM jobs.
The difference in choice of subjects comes into play at the school level. A greater proportion of the male toppers (96%) chose Science in Classes 11 and 12 as opposed to 71% for women. While 10 women toppers had studied Commerce, only two male toppers out of 51 had chosen that stream.
Ameeta Wattal, Principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, says the fact that fewer women toppers chose STEM subjects probably explains the finding on their comparatively smaller presence abroad. “In India, a foreign degree, particularly in maths and science, is valued over others as universities abroad have a cutting-edge curriculum in these fields, which eventually translate into well-paying jobs overseas. Parents in India will probably be keener to take a sizeable loan to fund a degree in engineering or science as opposed to, say, psychology. Women, traditionally, have been less interested in these sectors, and this possibly explains why you found fewer women toppers studying and working abroad,” she said.
Social and cultural challenges
Despite their impressive achievements, many of the women toppers admitted to facing obstacles in the form of socio-cultural barriers and family obligations — even if this wasn’t always in the form of any overt family pressure. Some of them say they reconfigured their careers to fulfill traditional roles.
Of the 45 male toppers who responded to this newspaper’s questionnaire, none spoke of being affected by anticipated or actual need to balance academics/career and family.
In contrast, among the 35 women toppers — many of them spoke of facing hurdles on condition of anonymity — is one in her twenties, who tailored her work life around her family.
“Once I got married, I didn’t want to take up a job where I couldn’t control my working hours. (I) restricted travel and regulated my working hours… so automatically, the jobs I could apply for got limited,” the topper said. Asked why she felt the need to do so, she said, “My family life needed it… my husband works from 11 am to 6 pm and had limited travel (obligations),” she said.
No wonder then that most of the women toppers, over 60%, are from Tier 1 cities while for men, the trend is just the opposite. Over 60% are from Tier 2 & 3 cities.
Shalini Prasad, 41, attended Loreto Convent School in Asansol up to Class 10 and did her high school at De Nobili School, Mugma, Dhanbad. She is one of the 13 women toppers from Tier 2 and 3 cities. Prasad, who topped the Class 12 ISC exam in 1997, is now Vice President (Finance) at British Petroleum in London.
She credits two men for helping her dreams take wings. “Growing up, I was sure I wanted to study at SRCC in Delhi. My father had just one condition — that I should score high enough in my Board exam to secure a hostel. Much later, when I was feeling stagnated at my job in Bangalore, it was my father-in-law who pointed out that Enrst & Young was recruiting in London and that I should apply,” she said.
Yet, there are many others who struggled with social expectations.
“All through my post-graduation, my family pressured me to get married. This had an impact on me as people would often discuss this and even taunt me. I was quite upset, but I haven’t given in to the pressure and will not,” said another achiever, who topped nationally with 99%. Her parents, for now, have given in to her decision to study further.
Being a minority in a male-dominated workspace can end up impeding achievement, says Spriha Biswas, 26, the ICSE national topper of 2011 who went on to study Metallurgical Engineering from IIT-Bombay.
Though she says she hasn’t faced any gender discrimination yet, there’s a footnote to her statement. “…But obviously, being a woman you are always in a minority, whether it is college or at the workplace. Which means that you don’t always have a peer group to discuss and share your ideas as freely as your male counterparts do… All of these factors become very important when you want to advance in a profession,” said Biswas, who works as Chief Product Officer at ScribeTech, a medical transcription company in Mumbai.
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