By Neha Sethi
A few months ago, during a text conversation with a guy, I casually lamented over my struggle with prepping for the quantitative section of my management exams. His response: Aww, ho jaayega. Girls struggling with maths is kinda cute. Now, normally, good sense and experience with everyday sexism would warrant that I cut the conversation short right there, but I chose to engage and call him out on his sexist comment. After all, why must my individual peeve with maths be attributed to women at large? An hour and a heated messaging match debating perceptions about women and maths later, neither of us budged from our respective stances.
A couple of days ago, I woke up to read ICICI Bank Chief Chanda Kochhar’s statement that quantitative reasoning-focused entrance exams keep more women from joining MBA programs. She also questioned, the article said, the need for such a focus in the exams, given that MBA courses are more general-management-oriented. While the latter is an issue that merits deliberation, statements like the former reinforce the erroneous perception that women are not as good as men when it comes to quantitative ability and logical reasoning.
Crucially, Kochhar’s statement, in tacitly correlating quantitative aptitude as inherent to a person’s sex, neglects the sociological reasons behind fewer women applying for and making it to management programs. Do women fare worse than their male counterparts when it comes to quantitative ability? Evidence from a 2014 study conducted by the non-profit organisation Feminist Approach to Technology (FAT) in fact suggests the opposite: girls perform slightly better than boys in maths and science, and despite having an interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects and good school grades, girls opt out of these subjects at secondary and higher secondary levels.
Importantly, the study provides strong evidence for something feminists have said often: that there are deep-set beliefs around girls’ and women’s inaptitude for STEM subjects, which hinder education and career prospects for them in these fields. (This of course is in addition to other factors such as lack of infrastructure, especially in government schools, favouring the education of the male child, language barriers and so on.) Taking care of household duties is still considered the primary responsibility for women (which is especially true in India and further amplified in socio-economically disadvantaged communities). This affects women’s self-perception about their abilities and colours family members’ opinions about the higher education stream or profession that women should choose. (On a personal note, I remember that growing up, family members would often suggest teaching as a good profession for women, as it is apparently less taxing and allows the woman to balance home and career, as opposed to business, which is far too demanding and chaotic for a woman.) Also, decades of conditioning lead girls and women to believe that they do not have much of an aptitude for STEM subjects or careers, thereby creating a ‘confidence gap’ (Sadker and Sadker, 1994, as quoted in the FAT study).
The dearth of exposure to women role models in influential managerial positions or STEM careers also certainly contributes to these self-perceptions. Young women rarely hear or read much about the contributions of women scientists or leaders, and it has a lasting effect on their ability to dream and aspire for such careers themselves.
We instead hear powerful women leaders like Chanda Kochhar and Indra Nooyi wax eloquent about work-life balance (which somehow never comes up as a question for working men) or why women “can’t have it all”, reminding us yet again that no matter how high up the career echelons a woman climbs, her identity as a wife and mother will always trump her individual or professional identity.
Neha Sethi is an Advocacy and Fundraising Officer at Urja Trust, a Mumbai-based grassroots NGO working with homeless young women. She previously worked as a Research Assistant with the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in Delhi.