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Playing catch

Girls consistently outperform boys in Class 10 and 12 exams every year. Why they drop off the charts in competitive science-related exams then, has become the multiple-choice question of the moment, says Snehal Rebello.
Hindustan Times | By Snehal Rebello, Mumbai
UPDATED ON MAY 30, 2010 12:28 AM IST

A recent study has found that although girls are increasingly outperforming boys in science at the board exams, they fall way behind in competitive exams such as the one determining entry into the Indian Institute of Technologies and the science Olympiads.

Although more than half the girls who sit for the CBSE class 12 exam score more than 90 per cent overall (the majority of who from the science stream), not even a tenth of those who take the IIT exam get through, according the data averaged over the three years to 2009 by the Mankhurd-based Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education.

Over these three years, the number of girls appearing for the dreaded exam increased by four per cent to 26, but the number who are selected has increased by only two per cent to 10.

“Even if there is an increase, at this slow rate, it will take several decades for girls to catch up with boys,” said Professor Vijay Singh, who carried out the study along with Praveen Pathak.

Girls were also highly under-represented in the Olympiads, for which the Mumbai institution is the national coordinating organisation. Only 2 girls but 65 boys have represented India in the physics Olympiads since 1998, and only three girls but 129 boys went from India to the mathematics Olympiads since 1989.

Why is this the case?

Only the ignorant, or the prejudiced, would cite biological reasons. But

what exactly are the environmental factors that prevent more girls from making it through these exams? “Parents are not willing to invest in their daughters as much as in their sons, in terms of fees and coaching classes,” said P.V. Indiresan, former IIT-Madras director.

“When women and girls are provided with a suitable environment, they do very well in science,” concurred sociologist Gita Chadha, from the Research Centre for Women’s Studies at SNDT University. “It is true that women do have to function in a patriarchical environment.”

But that is too wide an explanation, she said.

“Instead, we must scrutinise the nature and structure of these exams and disciplines,” she explained. “These are often so far removed from the world that few sensitive people will find meaning in pursuing them. Today, an IIT engineer is simply pursuing a lucrative job opportunity in the market economy. But wherever the technology curriculum has been revised to become more socially responsive, you will find more women.”

To encourage girls in science, Singh will forward his findings to a high-level committee and plans to set aside a budget for special science workshops for girls at junior colleges.

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