Understanding How Gender Barriers Impact Subject Choices in School Education

The article tries to examine gender biases that impact subject choices in school education impacting the lives of countless women in India and the world.

There is a growing body of interdisciplinary scholarship in the field of Gender and Schooling on how girls grow up and go to school. Their upbringing and education in India, as in other parts of the world; is mainly shaped by the social institutions of the family, its extended structures and the school. Their everyday lives unfold according to the norms, arrangements and practices prevalent at home and in school. Family in particular functions as a deterministic agent that shapes the development of girls’ world view, choices and behaviours as they grow up. The biological metaphor of imprinting has been invoked to refer to this inescapable pre-determined process. The imprinting consists of a process by which a girl is prepared for her future life as a woman (Dube, 2001). This deterministic process involves social mediation during the course of which gender is constructed. There is almost an advance preparation to become ‘gendered subjects’ (Dube, 1988:11). This gender construction operates at the macro and micro level through language, social practices and other rituals. The social construction process is mainly embedded within the primary institutional arrangement of society: family. The social interactions within the family at home and in the wider community are the bedrock of this social construction process for girls, as for any individual. There is an enormous difference between the lived experiences of girls and boys. It is not a misnomer to say that the sense-making of girls is exclusive to them. The experiences of boys and girls during growing up can be distinguished for their teleological orientation. They aim at equipping boys and girls to take their respective place in the adult social roles awaiting them.

Home and School

In the study of gender scholars in education discipline have highlighted a hiatus between home socialization and school education for girls (Kumar, 2017). While the home provides an initiation into the social world that is outside of it; the school is the site for acquisition of knowledge of basic disciplinary domains. These domains include: Language, Mathematics, Sciences and Social Sciences. Life at school aims at acquisition of relatively culture neutral knowledge. This is not necessarily in consonance with teachings at home for girls. This ‘tension between home and school’ is a social reality of special significance in girls’ education and upbringing.    

It is useful in this context to examine the colonial roots of the Indian school education system. The state’s approach to establish an educational system for our society during the colonial times especially in matters relating to women was a ‘cautionary stance’ (Ibid: 16). This caution implied leaving the arrangements, assumptions and hiatuses of school-home relationships undisturbed so that girls’ education could be promoted within the status–quo of Indian society. The teaching at school therefore is designed so as not to directly, or even indirectly; interrogate or weaken the norms, social practices or expectations into which girls are conditioned during the course of socialization at home. Such an approach to education continues as unstated policy since colonial times in contemporary India, as a characteristic of the relationship between state and society. Consequently,

The girl who walks through the school gates wearing her uniform does not leave behind the girl whose life at home is defined by custom and ritual and the demands and expectations of her family and community. The two girls inhabit the same body, but they lead contrasting mental lives. The secular knowledge dispensed by the school to both boys and girls acquires different meanings for the two sexes, reconstructed by their gendered selves to serve their culturally assigned roles in life (Ibid: 14).

The meaning of school knowledge thus becomes different for a boy and a girl. This meaning is mediated differently for a girl who has already internalised culturally approved perceptions of her own body’s instrumentality as being dissimilar at home and while at school.  This is an invisible gap for girls’ between the home and the school which neither of the two social institutions attempts to attenuate. It functions as a barrier when girls go to school.   

Domestic Work and Young Girls

If one adopts capabilities approach to the study of education it is the progressive freedoms to be and to do that can lead to development of an individual’s capabilities (Sen, 1933). Social practices further constrain these freedoms for girls’. Research has established domestic duties constitute a major activity for young girls. In the age group of 5-19 years 40 % and 50 % of rural and urban girls respectively in 2004-05 were occupied mainly in undertaking household chores. In contrast hardly any boys were involved in such type of work in the household. Further evidence indicated that this curtailed the freedom of girls to attend school (NCEUS, 2007). The unequal, asymmetrical and undue burden of domestic work upon girls has been a normative order of Indian society.

Gender Distribution in Higher Education

According to recent GoI statistics the total enrolment in higher education in India has been estimated to be 38.5 million with 19.6 million boys and 18.9 million female (Goi, 2020:ii). This gender distribution is promising to the extent that females constitute 49% of the total enrolment even though the percentage share of male is slightly higher than of female in almost every level (Ibid:17). The percentage share of student enrolment at undergraduate level is 50.8% male and 49.2% female, diploma courses have a skewed distribution with 65.1% male and 34.9% female while Ph.D. programmes have 55% male and 45% female enrolment. What is noteworthy is that the enrolment of female students is lowest in so-called prestigious higher education sites such as ‘Institutions of National Importance’.

However a far deeper issue is that women remain underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) arenas. In Engineering and Technology stream the student enrolment is 37.27 lakh. In this the share of male students enrolled is 70.8% whereas female enrolment is a mere 29.2% (Ibid: 15).

Gender Constraints on Subject Choices

American poet Ann Hudson writes ‘We think what we can’t see can’t hurt us’ but it does. There are tacit barriers that are carried from the home to the school. These shape young women’s subject choices, their educational trajectory and subsequent life journey. School education is characterized by a hierarchical dualistic allocation of disciplinary domains. STEM subjects are viewed as a masculine domain and the humanities disciplines as feminine beginning at the school level (Archer and Macrae, 2011, Makarova etal 2019). A gender gap in the study of STEM subjects is a widely perceived and empirically observed phenomenon. There is research evidence attributing the gap to differential socialization for boys and girls (Campbell and Jeffrey. 1998). The differential socialization paradigm has emerged as a potent theoretical framework for analysis of gender in STEM studies. Girls’ as gendered subjects experience a subtle lack of freedom in choosing subjects of study. To use the popular intersection simile of a traffic light crossing; buses coming from different roads carrying ‘family’, ‘community’, ‘social practices’ and ‘religion’/ ‘caste’ come to them from different roads. This causes a self-created pressure on which one to board. The freedom to choose and therefore access to subjects organized in a supposed hierarchy- Science, Commerce or Humanities which is offered by the school system in post-secondary grades tends to be mediated by gender. This causes differential opportunities for pursuing disciplinary subject studies based on gender. For instance in the CBSE’s Grade XII examination in 2015 mathematics was opted by 55% of the boys in contrast to 36% girls.

The gender differential in the subject choices undertaken by young students is an important research theme that merits attention. Among other factors young women students who wish to pursue STEM may be constrained by the demands of house work which may be a bar to spending long hours working in laboratories and record keeping of this work. Or as shadow teaching is essentialised in post-secondary grades as the key in pursuing STEM subjects the parents may not be keen to undertake that financial commitment. In Indian society social differences of class, caste and gender do not cross-cut but overlap resulting in a social system that is oppressive to women in a way that is different from other parts of the world. Context-specific micro-studies on deepening the understanding of barriers for this gender differential in STEM subjects as well as a recognition of the enabling conditions; is an important baby step forward towards the cliqued unfinished business of our time: achieving gender equality.


Archer, John and Macrae, M. 2011. Gender-perceptions of school subjects among 10–11 year olds. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 61. 99 – 103.

Campbell,  J, R. and S. Beaudry, Jeffrey. 1998. Gender Gap Linked to Differential Socialization for High-Achieving Senior Mathematics Students. Journal of Educational Research, Volume 91  Issue 3 140-147.

GoI. 2020. All India Survey on Higher Education,2019-2020. New Delhi: Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Education,

Dube, L. 1988. ‘On the Construction of Gender: Hindu Girls in Partilineal India’, Review of Women’s Studies, Vol 23 Issue 18, April 30, 1888.11-19.

Dube, L. 2001. Anthropological Explorations in Gender: Intersecting Fields, New Delhi: Sage.

Kumar, K. 2017. ‘Education and Girlhood’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 52, Issue 57, 13-17.

Makarova, E., A. Belinda, H. Walter. 2019. ‘The Gender Gap in STEM Fields: The Impact of the Gender Stereotype of Math and Science on Secondary Students’ Career Aspirations’, Frontiers in Education,     Volume 4.

NCEUS 2007. Report on the Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Organised Sector. Government of India: National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector.

Sen, A. 1933. Development as freedom New York: Anchor Books

Dr. Jyoti Raina teaches at the Department of Elementary Education, Gargi College, University of Delhi.

Qudsia Abrar is an undergraduate student at the Department of Elementary Education, Gargi College University of Delhi.


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