By merit and not by charity

Giving concessions by class or gender is completely regressive and, worse, self-defeating
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First Published: Mon, Jan 21 2013. 07 58 PM IST
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
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.
There is a difference between giving people a chance to prove themselves in a challenging situation and systemically giving concessions by class or gender. Concessions are an act of charity. In golf, it is called a handicap. The recent decision by the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM C) to change its entry criteria to admit more women into the business school is one such retrograde move. It 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. And it definitely shouldn’t offer concessions in the name of women.
Yes, 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. A concession in the entrance criteria does not address any of these. 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.
Women have formed between 10% and 25% of the cohort of the premier business schools of the country. These women have clearly matched whatever criteria the schools can throw at them with an equal degree of rigour and ease as the men they work with at the school, and later in their careers. The principle of equality that is established at the time of entry is carried through for ever. Any dilution of this 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.
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. If this is what softening the entrance criteria is seeking to address, then it is nowhere close.
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.
The premier business schools are the pipeline into the corporate leadership funnel. They cannot be expected to resolve the challenges of industrial age assembly line organization design by the act of modifying their entry criteria. The real problem does not lie in the notion that women are not smart enough to “crack the CAT (common admission test)” and qualify for these institutes. The real problem is that the career paths ahead are purely linear and do not serve the needs of the talent pool. Women do not only leave their jobs to have children. Many leave to have more meaningful careers, at the pace they like, that are managed in ways that are more sustainable, and not necessarily geared towards mere profit or efficiency. The behaviours and structures of current organizations come from an age where being more like a man was the key to success for women—and many women reject that notion. Indian women leaders are role models here although there are not enough of them in the top echelons.
To encourage more women to apply and join, business schools have to find incentives such as fee waivers and scholarships. They have to scout for talent that can come to the schools and nurture them to apply via student conferences. To compromise on merit is to not only play with the “smartwoman” brand but also to dilute the brand of the school itself.
Meeta Sengupta is an independent consultant in education strategy.
Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jan 21 2013. 07 58 PM IST
More Topics: Merit | gender | women | concessions |
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