New Delhi: Cracking the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) entrance test proves a point or two in India, the most important being the fact that the student is set for a bright future. As India’s elite engineering and technology school cluster, the IITs have come to be seen as the ticket to the good life, especially for a student from a middle-class family, and more so, a girl.

Priyal Sharma, 20, is one of the fortunate few. She is now living her dream as a first-semester student at IIT Roorkee. “Nobody except my parents believed that I could crack IIT. Everybody told them that they are wasting their time, energy and resources on me," says Sharma, who hails from Dorai, a small locality on the outskirts of Ajmer in Rajasthan.

Many of her relatives and neighbours believed she would never make it to IIT. But things have changed. They now want her to forget the jibes they made. “Now, the same people try to find a reason to associate with me," says Sharma, who is the first person in her locality and larger family to make it to IIT. “I have broken the glass ceiling of gender discrimination in education. And when you crack the IIT entrance, you get a new identity."

Sharma’s parents have struggled to support her education. Her father is physically challenged and cannot engage in any full-time employment. Her mother did chores in the neighbourhood to support the family, which includes Sharma and her two siblings.

Despite the family’s situation, Sharma, after Class X, decided to aim for IIT. “My parents struggled to buy me books and notes for my preparation," she says. Help came from a coaching centre in Ajmer that gave her a scholarship to take tuitions. “My father arranged for some second-hand books and notes from a person whose daughter had appeared for the IIT entrance exam earlier," she says.

“It was tough but I did not give up," Sharma says. All the while, her relatives and people in the neighbourhood prodded her parents to get her married her off instead of spending money on her education. “I kept quiet then. But my performance (cracking the joint entrance exam) was an answer to them all," she says while waiting in the lobby of a five-star hotel in New Delhi to receive a scholarship from Japanese electronics equipment maker Panasonic.

With Panasonic helping her financially, her focus is back on education. “When companies lend a helping hand, you feel relieved. The pressure of arranging finance goes," Sharma says.

Her face lights up when she talks about IIT. “IIT is much more than I imagined. In terms of education quality and job potential, coming here is a life-changing experience for me," she says. “More girls must strive to succeed in the joint entrance exam."

According to a 2013 report by education assessment firm Aspiring Minds, the male-female ratio in IITs across India ranges from 10:1 to 14:1. In the National Institutes of Technology (NITs), the ratio is 8:1 in favour of male students. Contrast this with the 1.4:1 ratio at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US and the gender gap becomes obvious.

A reason for this gap could be family resistance, says Gautam Barua, a former director of IIT-Guwahati. Families are reluctant to send their daughters to far-off places to take IIT-JEE coaching, he says. “Maybe it’s a security issue. There may be a societal mindset that a girl will only do well in non-engineering jobs," he says.

Traditionally, female presence in IIT’s B.Tech courses is low, though it has improved in the past few years.

Higher secondary schools in India also contribute to the gender gap in technical education. In 2014-15, only 41.67% of schools offered the science stream as an option for boys and girls, down from 42.54% in 2013-14, according to data from the human resource development ministry.

In absolute numbers, 6.21 million students were pursuing science education in higher secondary schools in 2014-15 as compared with 5.4 million in the previous year. But at the same level of schooling, there were 10 million students in humanities as against 7.6 million in 2013-14.

Anand Kumar, who runs Bihar’s Super 30, a coaching institute preparing students for the IIT entrance, says poor girls from rural India are equally talented. “What they need is proper hand-holding, some guidance and cooperation from their families," says Kumar, whose institution is dominated by male students.

Julakanti Sai Harika, a girl from Telangana who qualified in 2015 for IIT, agrees. “Most of the time, students are unaware of ground realities. Since families are not very exposed to the changing education scenario, they are unable to give career counselling," she says.

A farmer’s daughter, Harika says it’s this ignorance that made her opt for IIT-Hyderabad instead of an older and “better" IIT for which she had qualified.

“My ranking was 1,298, which could have given me a seat at any of the older IITs. But in my application form I had listed IIT-Hyderabad as my first preference, because it was close to home. This is the ignorance I was talking about," she says.

Like Sharma, Harika too believes that the gender barrier is slowly fading. “When families in my neighbourhood ask me to give tips to their sons or daughters on how to crack the IIT entrance test, I feel a sense of achievement."

“All barriers fall flat when a girl becomes the inspiration," Sharma says.

This is the last in a five-part series.

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