Tuesday, January 29, 2013

By the Grace of... Really?

For those not in the know, the Indian Institute of Management at Calcutta (IIM-C) is a premier educational establishment in the city of my birth. It is one of the top business schools in India, and according to the QS Global 200 Business School Report 2012, in the Asia-Pacific region as well. It offers several graduate (Master's and Doctoral degree and diploma) programs in Management and Executive Education.

Admission to this prestigious Business School is, as expected, difficult. A Bachelor's degree is a basic minimum for eligibility. Aspirants have to take and rank high in computer-based admission tests, the Common Admission Test (CAT) or the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Selected based on their scores, applicants are required to clear a further written ability test, and finally, an interview; separate weights are attached to their performances at all these steps, as well as their prior academic record. As a result, although the CAT qualifying bar, as well as the admissions policy of the Institute, subscribes to the Reservation Policies of the Central Government for under-privileged, under-represented groups, the final admission is generally considered to be merit-based, and no wonder - since the School seeks to train managers and high-level-decision-makers of the future, folks who are going to run industries and businesses across the country.

Imagine, then, my surprise, when, last Saturday, I was greeted with a news headline that proclaimed "Extra marks to allow more girls at Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta". Intrigued, I delved into the report.
...Indian Institute of Management Calcutta will see a sizeable number of women students walking into the campus... result of a new admissions formula that IIMC adopted this year, precisely to break the traditional male domination on campus. Women have been given extra points this time by IIMC to help them secure admission, a bold step that is being observed with interest by the two other bigger IIMs - Ahmedabad and Bangalore.
According to IIM-C's new admissions formula, therefore, three extra points (called Diversity Points) will have been given to women at the pre-interview stage to enable more women to make it to the interview.
...As a result of this "grace", of the total number of candidates coming for interview, at least 25 per cent are women. "If you take absolute numbers into consideration, 395 women will be appearing for interview this time, which is a large number considering the fact that last year only 170 came for interviews. This has been possible because of the three extra points that we have given to every woman who has qualified for the written ability test and interview," said Sanjit Singh, the admissions chairperson of IIMC... The total number of seats at IIMC is 462, going by the past trends, at least 20 per cent of the total number of women interviewees get selected. "If you convert that into absolute numbers, about 100 women would finally get admission at IIMC. This is about double the actual number and we feel that our purpose is served," Singh added.
I think their intention is august; they want to have more women join the prestigious institution and make a more balanced class; apparently, the "institute decided to tweak its earlier admission formula where all candidates were treated equally because the composition of the student body was 'skewed'." Although a couple of the reasons offered for this 'grace' by some unnamed 'faculty member' were very typically patriarchal and paternalistic - for example:
"Without a healthy percentage of women on campus, men are bound to get rowdy and indisciplined. Moreover, as young managers they need to be sympathetic to women's issues. So we decided to give extra points to women CAT successfuls to help more women come into IIMC, something that they were not being able to do without this little extra help," said a faculty member.
... the Institute seemed to desire the implementation of some system which would bring some equity into the gender distribution of their classes. However, was this it? A system of awarding 'grace' points to women simply for being women? Wouldn't this very idea - that the women needed 'grace marks' to catch up with the men - be insulting to all women?

This is the question I placed to various friends and acquaintances of mine across Social Media. The responses that ensued were most interesting and illuminating, to say the least. I am not particularly fond of cultural relativism, but I was rather surprised at the sharp cultural divide that sprung up between the responses from people of two different parts of the world. Read the responses, and let me know what you think, if you want, in the comments.

Reaction from American, British and various assorted Western folks
This was gleaned from a non-representative sample of my non-Indian friends. The caveat is, of course, the demographic, and the cultural bindings that come with it: these are educated individuals, many of them engaged in a variety of professions, and belonging to all strata in the economic spectrum. Ideologically, they are (as far as I know) progressive, liberal, some left-leaning, some centrist folks, passionately committed to issues surrounding equality and social justice everywhere in the world, their opinions informed by empathy, rationality and common sense.

[NOTE: Wherever possible, I have quoted my friends ad verbatim.] Generally folks welcomed the idea of this 3-point grace. A friend wondered if this isn't a version of Affirmative Action, perhaps a recognition that there are longstanding cultural reasons women do not traditionally qualify for admission, and the recognition that a more diverse student population is desired.

To my thinking, the only thing this particular action affirms is the idea that women are intellectually inferior to men, and must be allowed some kind of sop or 'grace'. But, in reality, how true or valid is that idea? To examine that, I brought up the schooling system in India. In India in general, as well as in Calcutta, the system of schooling is often sex-segregated (by which I mean, there are separately boys' schools and girls' schools), although co-educational schools exist, too. At least in my state (West Bengal, of which Calcutta is the capital), these schools are, by and large, very comparable to each other, and the girls' schools are by no means inferior in any way in their educational capabilities. The schools are obliged to follow a curriculum that is designed and mandated by the State Educational authorities. The school leaving tests are held twice, after the 10th standard (post-secondary), and the 12th standard (post-higher secondary); these are public examinations, organized and conducted under the State Educational authorities. Girls perform very well, at par with the boys, in these exams, often topping the list of top students in the state.

My understanding, therefore, is that the kind of social disparity and institutionalized discrimination that demands a corrective Affirmative Action simply doesn't exist at this level - let me emphasize that, at this educational level. To this, another friend brought up two very pertinent questions: If girls are equally educated, why aren't they applying and being admitted to these schools now? And if girls are getting the same test scores now, why would the school think giving extra points to women will help?

Meeta Sengupta, a noted Indian educator and blogger, has answered this partly in the Opinion post she wrote at Livemint after learning about this proposed step by IIM-C.
...it is true that not enough women are represented in business schools, especially the “elite” ones. This does not necessarily reflect on the competence of women but on the choices they make in learning and in life—or the choices that have been imposed on them if they come from highly patriarchal families...

In a patriarchal and misogynistic society like India where parents dominate decision making, it is natural to divert women away from careers that will demand full attention, a lot of travel and almost no provisions for any path but the steeply vertical. Women are advised to opt for careers that will support their primary caregiver role and their lifestyle. The burdens of high-flying careers of women are often too much for the “cared” to bear...

Even women who have entered the hallowed portals have made alternative choices along the way. A look at the composition of boards of large companies across the country would reveal that the pyramid for women looks steeper than the one for men. Many women do leave at child bearing age, refusing to deal with the pressures of a dual career—there simply doesn’t appear to be an alternate model that will enable her to “have it all”, to continue to contribute as her talent and efforts warrant...
So why does IIM-C think that the 3-point grace is going to be helpful for the women? A couple of friends thought that the reason is because the extra point to women gets them in the door, that "grace" for entry doesn't morph into grace with regards to achievement, and that it's just a way, even if distasteful, of getting more diversity on the playing field - a rare example, perhaps, of the end justifying the means.

I couldn't agree. Perhaps the extra points to women are supposed to be an enticement - I haven't a clue. But I know that ALL the Indian women I have talked to about this feel unequivocally that this leads to disempowerment of women, that this is going to give rise to a reverse stereotype as the recipients of grace marks, thereby undermining the abilities of all women. Meeta Sengupta agreed with me when she addressed the major lacunae in the Business School system that the grace marks would never solve.
There is a difference between giving people a chance to prove themselves in a challenging situation and systemically giving concessions by class or gender. The recent decision by IIM C... is deeply patronizing and clearly shows little knowledge of those the school seeks to encourage...

The admission test is skewed towards engineers. This really has nothing to do with gender except for the fact that there are not enough women in the pool of engineers. If the test were to be skewed away from mathematics towards “writing” as the school claims, then it should be based on the type of student IIM C wants. Men are good writers too, and some of them too get left out by the test seemingly designed for the left-brained examination. If engineering training is useful to the group, then the school should continue with that and not seek to dumb down its cohort...

A concession in the entrance criteria does not address any of these (that is, the choices that women make, or which are imposed on them, as well as the consequences thereof. My note). The entry criteria should be changed if there is a need for diversity of competencies and skills. This may or may not be co-related to gender, a variable irrelevant to the design of a test that seeks merit...

Any dilution of this (that is, the instances where women, on their own merit, have successfully competed with men to gain entry to these professional schools. My note) can only dilute the credibility of the women it seeks to support. Every woman who gets through to these institutes will be suspected of having been offered concessions and thus be deemed inferior at the tables she seeks to lead. This is completely regressive and, worse, self-defeating...

If this (that is, the societal and familial prohibition on a woman choosing a career outside the traditional caregiver/nurturer framework. My note) is what softening the entrance criteria is seeking to address, then it is nowhere close.
What needs to happen is to put in place programs that would (a) strengthen educational programs in high schools and thereafter, especially for the women students, (b) provide better support for women students to prepare for the tests, and (c) ensure that the test questions are not biased in any way so as to favor the men students. Giving grace marks does none of that. I'd really like to see positive changes brought in women's education system in India (and there are ways to do it), so that they are not left at the mercy of 'grace points' and random benevolence of educational institutions.

In a relevant discussion, a friend from the UK pointed out that this system didn't not seem so different from a policy in the UK of changing the A-level passes required to get into the University of one's choice depending on what school one attends. The thinking goes that a student attending a top Public school will find it easier to get good A-level grades than a student attending a mediocre state school.

There are some inherent problems with this line of reasoning. The situation in question is not akin to the difference between the academic outputs of two schools. IIM-C is making a categorical statement, via its policy, that regardless of performance or merit, or any other criterion, a candidate is automatically entitled to 3 grace points if one happens to be a woman. Apart from being demeaning, this is wholly unnecessary. As Meeta Sengupta pointed out, going by the past trends, approximately 10-25% of the graduating classes in the premier business schools of the country are women. At IIM-C, this proportion is about 20%. These women, who have so long qualified to join these schools, have matched their male counterparts in performance and quality in their work, and later, in their careers. Why should they ever be considered so weak as to require a grace?

Finally, another friend brought up the real and serious issue of 'Stereotype threat', a situation in which members of a marginalized group perform poorly in Standardized Tests when they are made aware of their marginalized identity. Thus, Steele and Aronson (1995) "showed in several experiments that Black college freshmen and sophomores performed more poorly on standardized tests than White students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better and equivalently with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one's behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes." Wikipedia lays out an important description:
Stereotype threat is a potential contributing factor to long-standing racial and gender gaps in academic performance. However, it may occur whenever an individual's performance might confirm a negative stereotype. This is because stereotype threat is thought to arise from the particular situation rather than from an individual's personality traits or characteristics. Since most people have at least one social identity which is negatively stereotyped, most people are vulnerable to stereotype threat if they encounter a situation in which the stereotype is relevant. Situational factors that increase stereotype threat can include the difficulty of the task, the belief that the task measures their abilities, and the relevance of the negative stereotype to the task. Individuals show higher degrees of stereotype threat on tasks they wish to perform well on and when they identify strongly with the stereotyped group. These effects are also increased when they expect discrimination due to their identification with negatively stereotyped group. Repeated experiences of stereotype threat can lead to a vicious circle of diminished confidence, poor performance and loss of interest in the relevant area of achievement.
And in the relentlessly patriarchal Indian society with its deeply entrenched misogyny, gender stereotype can be a clear and present danger to academic performance in general. But do the specifics apply to this particular situation (as well as cultural context) under discussion? Let's examine:
  • In India, academic performances are not judged by Standardized Tests. State Education boards set their own question papers. The questions are based on text-books under the State-determined curriculum. No one has ever alleged or even hinted at any kind of gender bias in setting the questions. Gender of the student is not a factor in any kind of consideration.
  • A common stereotype which can undermine women's performance in some particular areas is their supposed inability to understand mathematics. In Indian schools, however, girls are NOT taught that women are expected to be bad at maths. In the schools, whether all-girls or co-ed, girls are taught from the uniform syllabus set for ALL schools under a State, and so far there is no evidence of poor performance by girls either in these school-leaving exams, or the subsequent national level entrance tests to medical and engineering schools, which contain major sections on physics and maths.
  • Under discussion is the entry to Business/Management Schools, which are treated to different standards than, say, technology or medical schools. The most immediate difference is that in India, entry to Business schools, as opposed to medical or engineering schools, requires a Bachelor's degree at the very least. When school and college performances are concerned, getting less marks has NOT been an issue for the women; other societal factors have been. Graduates of a Management School are expected to fill in the Management workforce of the country, as one can imagine. That is where the discrimination occurs, not earlier.
The important point to base the conclusion upon is: "...most people are vulnerable to stereotype threat if they encounter a situation in which the stereotype is relevant." It appears to me that in India, a gender stereotype is simply not relevant in the context of school and college performances, and there is no evidence that it is a relevant factor in existing admission disparities in business schools, separately from all other issues that plague women in Indian societies. Most of all, the 3-point grace proposed by IIM-C is not going to be the panacea the institution is projecting it out to be.

With this discussion in the background, I turned to ask my Indian friends, many women amongst them.

Indian reaction
This was gleaned from, again, a non-representative sample of my friends. The caveat is, as before, the demographic: these are highly educated, professional individuals, hailing from - and belonging to - economically middle-to-upper-middle class and above (at least by Indian standards). Ideologically, they are (someone please correct me in the comments if I am wrong) progressive, liberal, perhaps left-leaning folks, staunchly in favor of common sense and rationality. They are mostly Indian expats to North America, but share a common concern for India and feel strongly about issues surrounding equality and social justice in India, as well as the rest of the world. This is a demographic to which I belong, too, and I offer these details prior to the discussion as a means of privilege-check.

A friend of mine agreed with my distaste for the proposed system, pointing out the real possibility (it happens in India!) that the grace system may soon turn out to be an entitlement, demanded everywhere, for all institutions - with probable involvement of political parties bringing pressure upon the institutes that demur. She also reminded me of existing welfare programs such as free education for the Girl Child till the 12th standard (senior school-leaving), and payment to the parents to send the girls to school in various rural areas. An important fact in the patriarchal Indian society is that higher education, for which often parents may have to pay, more-often-than-not boils down to the parents, even in urban areas. There are some young women (in each generation) who consciously choose the traditionally selected role of exclusive homemakers, happily accepting the financial dependence upon their husbands - because it is the 'traditional thing to do' - and these women may not bother much with academic performances. What is needed, opined she, is a support system for those who want to study further, but face severe opposition from their families or communities.

Another friend found this system extremely insulting. She said, "Women don't need grace marks to catch up. Women need to be shown that a field that is traditionally more male oriented in India doesn't need to be so. Women who portray the IIM skill set can be identified and encouraged to apply... This will only perpetuate the myth that women aren't management material and the all the other sexist stereotypes."

The conversation at this point turned naturally to Affirmative Action. My friend, who has had some experience with the political process in North America intersecting with Affirmative Action, provided some examples from Canada, of Affirmative Action-like principles utilized to ensure diversity even in absence of a quota system. A Canadian political party, the NDP, demonstrated to the minority candidates and/or women, that the party is open to their involvement - by simply facilitating their participation; in lieu of any kind of quota, they offered babysitting services for women who were interested in running, and provided a sort of start-up funding for lower-income people. This endeavor rewarded the party handsomely in term of maximum involvement from women and minority communities over the years.

India's equivalent of Affirmative Action is the system of Reservation for marginalized, socially and economically downtrodden communities, who are put under certain 'schedules'; at various stages, from education to employment opportunities, quotas are reserved, which must be fulfilled by people from these schedules. Reservations are not ideal solutions, but for a historically marginalized community, Reservation is a system that - if properly implemented - can work wonders. However, the current system of Reservation is often criticized by many in the country, because it seems to have failed to create a safe space for the minority communities as it originally intended. One of the problems has been that the Reservation system is largely mismanaged, and subject to many layers of corruption. But the problems in the system have been unsolvable because of partisan vote-bank politics very popular amongst Indian political parties. At the same time, it is difficult to knock, in good conscience, the Reservation system in India, because various inequalities (the most loathsome are caste-based inequalities) still remain very much in effect, and continue to oppress people of certain downtrodden communities.

My friend opined that instead of offering sops or graces, there may be much better ways, available to an institution like IIM-C, to encourage women to pursue Management as a profession; they could, for example, scout for talented women with leadership skills and analytical abilities in schools and colleges, by themselves or in conjunction with the schools/colleges to identify women with leadership skills and analytical capabilities. They could perhaps offer tuition breaks or scholarships to women when they qualify. They could run awareness campaigns to entice talented women. "They could do so many things other than insult the intelligence of one half of the population."

Several other friends have considered this step by IIM-C an example of 19th century patriarchy-infused paternalistic mindset. A friend lamented asking when the understanding that being a woman is not a handicap will finally dawn upon the Indian society. On Twitter, I asked the same question of one journalist, a teacher, an author - all women whom I follow - and they were unanimous in voicing their disagreement.
My thoughts are congruent with Meeta Sengupta's, when she writes (in her Livemint Opinion piece):
To be promoted for anything other than merit is no less than an insult. To seek advancement on anything but merit is foolish if not foolhardy—a gesture that is doomed to fail; a move that has the seeds of its own destruction built within itself. A person without the merit or ability to perform the task he or she has been elevated to is unlikely to perform well. So, what were they promoted to do? To prove Murphy’s laws? After all, selection without merit is setting up a person for failure.


  1. It is highly patronizing and ridiculous and I had not expected this of the IIMC. Maybe they think their male students need more extra curricular in their system to make them perform better. I know how sex starved they are. I know it sounds crude, but that's the reality. Also, as someone you quoted said, women are rare in these institutions not because they aren't good, but because they choose different areas of study. I am currently studying at one of the most prestigious English universities in India, and the number of men here are minimal. Do we say, that men should be given grace marks here? It's simply that men think Humanities is not a money making area. These moronic decisions taken by the "prestigious" institutions are setting the feminist movements back by degrees. Fills me up with nothing but rage trust me.

  2. You put some much work into this! Thank you for considering all the different sides of the issue, perhaps we could send this post to someone at IIM?