Gender gaps in education

Interesting new paper from Dr Ashwini Despande of Ashoka University on gender gaps in school education in India, which underlines the persisting gaps in the quality of education offered to girls as compared to boys. The paper notes that “the gender gap in private schooling increased slightly over the period, with the largest increase in families with unwanted girls. The expenditure gap between girls and boys was driven by families with unwanted girls” during 1995-2018.

These gaps can have large implications for economic growth in a country where numerous studies have highlighted the culture of son preference stunting the rights of the girl child to education and work opportunities. Even as the total fertility rate (TFR) has rapidly declined in India during 2001-2011 and some change has been recorded in the culture of son preference, there is a decline in the already low female LFPRs indicating the low priority accorded to women’s place in the labour force. As the paper notes, “growth, development, and structural shifts in India have not acted as natural antidotes to gender discrimination. Sex selection and educational investments in children appear to be part of family strategies to achieve upward mobility”.

Read more here.

25 years on, what’s next for Mayawati?

First published in Mint:

A woman sarpanch finds her place under the sun

First published in Mint:

Inequality in publishing

Gender neutrality in economics: The role of editors and referees

Yet another paper confirming what we have known all along: Women academics face a higher bar for punishing in journals than their male peers.

surgeons and sex

How Medieval Surgeons Shaped Sex and Gender

Fascinating take on the historical origins of how sex and gender came to be defined, and the role of medical surgeons in it.

18 percent of 50

Wikipedia has been a deeply unequal place and this wasn’t going to change anytime soon. But thanks to the efforts of academics and researchers and gender experts around the world, the gender gap on Wikimedia has narrowed. Check out the figures for every country here.

Since 2015, ‘Women in Red’ project based has been leading efforts to mitigate the biases on the internet, especially the “content gender gap” prevalent on websites like Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, women have been underrepresented and this forms the basis for the ‘Women in Red‘ project to work towards turning the non-existent red links on Wikipedia into blue ones, with women’s biographies, details on their work and career, and other gender issues. Since 2015, the entries about women on Wikimedia were just about 15% of the total entries on the site; four years later, it has touched 18%.

At Rice University, Prof Diane Straussman has been encouraging students to take up wikimedia entries as part of their student projects. An interview with her to learn more about her efforts will be on this blog soon.

While I get back here with the interview, here , here, here and here are some interesting reads on the gender gap and efforts to bridge the gap, highlighting the credit for outstanding work by women that either arrives late or almost never comes!



Hey Alexa! Say Hello To Q!

Chances are, you have an Alexa at home. So do I. So, this post is for you.

A UN study has found that voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri have been designed excessively servile that perpetuate gender stereotypes about women. The report recommended that companies stop making digital voice assistants female by default, and explore gender-neutral options.

They are programmed to be submissive and servile – including politely responding to insults – meaning they reinforce gender bias and normalise sexist harassment, said researchers from the U.N. scientific and cultural body UNESCO.

The study highlighted that Siri was previously programmed to respond to users calling her a “bitch” by saying “I’d blush if I could” as an example of the issue.

“Siri’s submissiveness in the face of gender abuse – and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women – provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products,” it said.

Earlier this year, Q was developed as a gender-neutral voice assistant developed by a team of technologists at EqualAI to promote gender equality in technology and to address concerns of sexism. A Quartz article explained why genderless technology such as Q matters:

Adding a voice like Q’s to a menu of audio options would address more than one ethical dilemma. As Q articulates in its introductory recording, it would make tech more inclusive by recognizing people who identify as non-binary, a population that’s becoming increasingly visible as social norms change. “It’s because Q is likely to play with our minds that it is important,” Kristina Hultgren, a linguist who was not part of the project, told Wired. “It plays with our urge to put people into boxes and therefore has the potential to push people’s boundaries and broaden their horizons.”

Wide adoption of a genderless voice would also pave the way for some much needed women’s liberation among AI assistants, which are infiltrating our lives at a rate that has even surprised industry analysts. Currently, all of the major digital voices who answer our questions about the weather, or provide the exchange rate between the peso and a dollar, or remind us to make a phone call, are undeniably feminine, even though their makers claim the bots are genderless.

Yet, however big a deal Q might be, gender bias in technology can’t be fully removed unless diversity and inclusion in technology (AI et al), creative and leadership roles happen. Until then, robots and digital assistants will continue to reflect what they learn from human behavior. 

Wanna hear what Q sounds like? Go here, and use headphones!


More than 100 years ago, in the iconic Citizenship In A Republic speech, US President Theodore Roosevelt outlined the key drivers of a successful republic: the quality of its citizens and high calibre political leaders who would hold the average citizen to a high standard—not just by words, but by deeds as well. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi fits this idea of a high calibre leader, one who is, as Roosevelt said, critical to the success of a democracy.

Atishi, born to Delhi University professors Vijay Singh and Tripta Wahi, studied at St Stephen’s and Oxford University, excelled at academics, and chose to work for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) when she could have chosen the path of corporate opulence just as an overwhelming number of people with pedigree do. The 37-year-old was AAP’s only female candidate in Delhi, besides being the only woman on its highest decision-making body. In one of her interviews, she said she chose politics because that is the path that helps bring change.

Yet, today as we stand, electoral trends point to her losing out on her political debut to BJP candidate from East Delhi, Gautam Gambhir, another political debutante and star cricketer who is far removed from everything she stands for: the politics of development, social policy and genuine groundwork. Atishi also trails behind the Congress candidate from East Delhi, Arvinder Singh Lovely.

As Delhi’s education advisor since July 2015, Atishi was at the helm of large-scale education reforms in the government schools of Delhi with stunning results. A gaping divide separates government-aided education from private school education in India and she helped bridge the gap with policies and programmes that sought to replace the tarred image of government schools with that of swanky and sharp ones where classes do happen and dedicated teachers show up at school for children from India’s underclass. Her door-to-door campaign turned the BJP’s religious slogan of “Mandir wahin banayenge” into “School wahin banayenge”, a clear marker of the kind of politics she has been vouching for.

But in the din of Indian politics, strong interplay of caste and religious identities can take well-meaning leaders down. This could explain the lead of the BJP’s Pragya Singh Thakur—who has absolutely no development agenda to boot—in Bhopal even as Atishi trails. Pragya wears her Hindu nationalistic robes with fervour, rides on the politics of saffron symbolism, and played the victim card in her campaign by talking of police cruelty while she was jailed.

Atishi’s struggle has been a departure from Pragya’s politics. For Atishi, being in the electoral fray with confusion over caste and religion turned out to be a self-defeating thing to do. Advising the government on winning programmes can win women respect but to talk of real development as a woman politician fighting to win is even worse—or so it appears.

In India, being a well-meaning woman in the electoral fray isn’t enough. The political structure is designed to accommodate women in non-threatening roles with little or no career progression to bigger political roles. Those who co-opt into the system survive with glorious wins. Like Pragya Singh Thakur has. Many view women as intellectually or economically weak to win an election. From Lalu Yadav’s cheesy references to actor and BJP MP Hema Malini’s cheeks to Congress candidate and actor Urmila Matondkar’s rival calling her a bholi bhali ladki to SP politician Jaya Prada being called derogatory names—all this drama and mansplaining in politics is contemptuous and sickeningly sexist, and yet it continues to resist women from moving forward.

Atishi’s surname of Marlena, given to her by her Leftist parents, was attacked first with rumours projecting her as a Christian. Days into her political campaign, Atishi had vehemently said that the only plank for her in the elections would be her work on health and education and her vision for East Delhi. Very soon, her surname was called into question and we heard Atishi declaring her caste at birth: “My actual surname is ‘Singh’ and I come from a Punjabi Rajput family.” This is how she went around telling people, frazzled about the fuss over her caste and religious identity. Atishi ultimately dropped her the name Marlena.

In the rabidly masculine world of politics, Delhi’s East Delhi constituency looked like just another post waiting to be swallowed by the saffron surge. Gautam Gambhir was just the BJP’s foot soldier like hundreds of others, guarding the post as votes were cast for the overpowering persona of Modi. Atishi and her report card, her campaign videos and her repeated emphasis on developmental issues were just weak straws against a very strong saffron wave. The fact that Atishi suffered an attempt at her character assassination doesn’t seem to matter.

While it can be safely said that in seats that went to the BJP, the votes were cast for Modi, was it also Atishi’s aggressive campaign that weakened her position in a highly sexualised campaign? Popular support for macho, sexually-charged campaigns that male politicians run and women politicians like Pragya Singh Thakur co-opt into silences women with an agenda to work.

The Modi wave

“How will women participate in politics if treated this way?” was the common refrain during Atishi’s very difficult campaign, during which she publicly broke down. Atishi has been raw, articulate, and human. And her campaign relentlessly kept putting the focus back on real issues. In contrast, 49-year-old Pragya Singh Thakur’s contest in itself was an escape from the problematic questions that her candidature and now her win raises. An accused awaiting trial in the 2008 Malegaon bombings, she, as her political rival and Congress’s veteran leader Digvijaya Singh has said, is the face of Hindu terror. She faced arrest for terror charges, but has consistently used it to her advantage by playing the victim card. Her frequent references to her “tortuous” jail time and other comments have kept stirring controversies, the latest being the one where she called Mahatma Gandhi’s killer a patriot.

When examined through the lens of gender, Pragya Singh seems to have successfully channelled gender as a weapon to shame the state apparatus and its dealings with terror accused free of any other identity of privilege except religion. A sadhvi for Hindus remains a sacred identity and Pragya Thakur’s allegations about police torture on her body remains, if not a political issue, definitely a religious issue, finding appeal with the masses.

Way forward

Even today, women constitute only 11.8 per cent (64 of 543) seats in the Lok Sabha and 11 per cent (27 out of 245) seats in the Rajya Sabha. A 2017 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women indicates that between 2010 and 2017, the share of women representatives in the Lok Sabha rose only by one per cent. This means that the percentage of women elected to Parliament has stagnated between three and 11 percent ever since the first Lok Sabha was constituted 67 years ago in 1952.

This is a paradox, considering the increasing share of women voters in the electorate. From 48 percent in 1971, the turnout of women increased to 60 percent in 1984 and then to 65.3 percent during the 2014 general elections.

While the sheer size of women voters is heartening and the representation of women in Parliament may have a long way to go, it is time the debate on women’s participation in politics discussed the quality of women in the electoral fray and not just increasing the number of women in Parliament. To be sure, the same standards could be applied to male candidates as well, but we often fail. However, given the sheer impact of women’s political participation on the life of a nation, it’s important that we are clear about the role models we have: the ones who burn the unchartered path to build anew, or those who fall into the macho-masculine narrative of male politicians and close the room for negotiation.

This story was first published here.