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Right in the center

Excuse me, I have a reservation

Posted by kostub on September 8, 2009

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences,
our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.
– Sonya Sotomayor

Recently, the Indian cabinet approved a 50% reservation for women in Panchayats, while the bill for 33% reservation for women in the parliament still languishes on the back burner due to opposition from the left. Reservations for minorities or women have been a contentious topic in India: there have been numerous protests in the past when reservations have been proposed and this one is no different. In spite of this, no political party ever seems to have considered any alternatives to reservation to solve the problems for the underrepresented classes in society.

The number of women parliamentarians in India is abysmally low with only 10% of the MLAs being women. The women’s liberation movement wants this bill to address that issue have come out strongly in its favor.  There is something to be said about having more women in powerful positions and the hope is having these reservations will address many of the social injustices faced by women. Other countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh already have reservations for women in the parliament, while the US & the UK have a much lower percentage of women legislators than Pakistan and yet have a much better social standing for women. India has had 33% reservation for women in Panchayats for over a decade and that has definitely led to an increase in women participation in politics at the grassroots level. But has that really made any difference to the social status for women, such providing access to education, improving health of women, reducing domestic violence, or has it just been touted as a panacea for all evils just because it provides the political parties with a reliable bank of votes?

Clearly, diversity is a good thing and we definitely want to encourage participation from all classes of society. Diversity provides many socio-economic benefits by bringing together people from various backgrounds, cultures and opinions. This fosters a deeper understanding of issues which may result in more appropriate solutions to address the present social and cultural problems. It also provides a platform for underprivileged classes to raise their standing in the society. In order to increase diversity, India has adopted the reservation system which allocates some percentage of the seats to minorities and women in education and public services. Other countries, such as the US, have policies of affirmative action that provide women and minorities the access to better education and have had reasonable success in improving the social standing of women and minorities alike. Does the Indian system do the same?

In my opinion, reservations cause a more divisive society rather than an integrated one. More often than not, reservations lead to a selection of poorly qualified candidates due to a persistent lack of qualified candidates. Moreover, it denies jobs and education opportunities to better qualified individuals and completely undermines the importance of merit or talent. This results in general discontent amongst the populace as they look down upon people whom reservation favors. The policy also produces an unintended counter-effect – it further deepens division along lines of gender, religion and caste and makes the society more intolerant to the needs of others. Are there better approaches that we can take to ensure diversity while still integrating the society?

To prove my point, let us look at an example from technology jobs in the US. Traditionally, high-tech industry has been a bastion of male dominance with only around 10-20% employees in this sector being women. While many technology companies like Microsoft actively pursue diversity, reservation is not one of the tools they use. Could a company like Microsoft increase the number of women by just proposing a 33% reservation of jobs on women?  This policy would be disastrous for the company. Firstly, the lack of qualified female candidates in the field will leave a large number of jobs open and it will deny jobs to a number of qualified male candidates. That would imply that either Microsoft will have to live with a smaller workforce or reduce the quality of employees, neither of which is a viable option from a business standpoint. Nor would this policy increase the number of qualified women in the sector in the future. The number of opportunities in the technology field for qualified women are limitless even without reservations, and yet this has not caused more women to join the workforce. The problems are more deep-rooted than just a lack of opportunities and we need to look at other ways of solving the issue.

The lack of women in computer jobs stems from the small number of women from computer science education. A few years ago, CMU undertook a research project which increased the percentage of female students in computer science undergraduate studies from 8% to 40% in a period of five years. This was done not by reserving seats, favoring women or diluting the candidate pool and in fact the quality of students (based on SAT scores) remained the constant throughout the study. Instead, the study attacked the social bias which caused this discrepancy. The solutions involved broadening the culture and curriculum of the department, providing a peer support group and mentorship for women and addressing the perception of the field in younger girls with the help of their teachers. This goes to show that we can considerably improve the representation of women or minorities by addressing the underlying social causes without compromising on equality. Another fine example of this approach is the preparatory program for scheduled caste students at the IITs in India. Programs such as this helps minority students prepare for further education and provide them the resources to compete with the rest of the society on an equal footing.

The same principles can be applied to women’s liberation and uplifting of the backward castes in India. Though, replicating such social programs to empower and educate women or minorities would require a significant amount of political capital and initiative and they may prove to be difficult or even impossible to implement on a wide scale in a diverse nation as India. Moreover, reservations are deeply entrenched in the present Indian psyche and they seem to provide an easy answer to the problem. But are they the right approach for the society longer term?


One Response to “Excuse me, I have a reservation”

  1. […] Though, replicating such social programs to empower and educate women or minorities would require a significant amount of political capital and initiative and they may prove to be difficult or even impossible to implement on a wide …Continue Reading […]

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