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The long, slow journey of Isro's women scientists

Despite stereotyped images going viral of women in silk and jasmine working on rockets, Isro's women scientists are proof that there is no basis for sexism in science

This image provided by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) shows the Vikram lander as photographed by the Pragyan rover. India’s moon rover has confirmed the presence of sulfur and several other elements on the surface near the lunar south pole (Isro via AP)
This image provided by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) shows the Vikram lander as photographed by the Pragyan rover. India’s moon rover has confirmed the presence of sulfur and several other elements on the surface near the lunar south pole (Isro via AP)

During the Chandrayaan-3 moon landing, one of the most delightful sights, for me, was seeing many women at consoles in the control centre, focused and actively involved in one of Isro’s most prestigious launches. After the Vikram lander’s successful touchdown on the moon came another delightful sight—so many women engineers, scientists and administrative staff laughing and cheering, rejoicing in the success of the mission on which they had worked tirelessly for so many years.

Decades ago, when the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) was still very young, there were hardly any women on the staff. The few who were there in the early 1970s were restricted to housekeeping or administration. Even those jobs were sometimes denied to them as any government job was in demand and men got priority over women. In fact, in the early 1970s, almost all the stenographers were men because the big bosses, who were all male, felt more comfortable having male personal assistants. Many of them resisted employing women using the now outdated arguments about women being “unreliable” as they got married and had caregiving responsibilities. The few women there did not have a proper washroom or a place to relax.

Also read: With Chandrayaan's success, Isro has gone further than Vikram Sarabhai ever imagined

Today, the women of Isro have proved how wrong those views were. Women form about 25% of Isro’s over 16,000 employees, a large number of them working in the technical field and often heading important projects. By the late 1970s, Isro had started recruiting women in technical positions. I remember my husband R. Aravamudan, who was associated with India space programme from the early 1960s before Isro was formally launched, telling me about his experience of going to the Trivandrum engineering college for a recruitment drive. The very first woman engineer he interviewed was so nervous she fainted. Since he himself was a young man, he didn’t know how to react. However, they both recovered, and not only did she join the organisation, she also rose to occupy a senior position before she retired.

Early on, Isro realised that graduates of the “premier” institutions like the IITs preferred migrating abroad to taking a “dull” government job. And so, Isro lucked out—they hired the best from the so-called ordinary colleges. People who wanted to stay in India and do what they believed was exciting work. It's an unusual approach that has taken time, but over five decades, it has gained Isro a unique pool of talented women and men scientists.

One of Isro’s most senior engineers Anuradha T.K., who was its first woman satellite project director, joined the organisation in 1982 and specialized in communication satellites. She laughingly told BBC in 2016, soon after the Mangalyaan mission, “In my batch, five-six women engineers joined Isro. We stood out and everyone knew us. Today, there are so many women and we no longer feel special!” At Isro, she continued, the recruitment and promotion policies were all dependent on “what we know and what we contribute”.

Other pioneering women rocket scientists, including Ritu Karidhal Srivastava and Nandini Harinath, who were both Deputy Operations Directors for the Mars Orbiter Mission, Mangalyaan, have talked about working alongside with their male colleagues as equals. After the Mars mission, when the women scientists were dubbed “women from Mars,” Srivastava told BBC, “I am a woman from earth, an Indian woman who got an amazing opportunity.” In other interviews, women scientists have said that they everyone was treated alike and given the same jobs.

Soon after the Mars launch a photo of women in silk saris, jasmine flowers in their hair, rejoicing, went viral. It became a meme. Everyone thought that’s how women in Isro dressed, even when they were working on spacecraft. Although Isro clarified that the women in silk and jasmine were administrative staff, that image remains unchanged. In fact, in Mission Mangal, the film supposedly about the women who worked on the Mars orbiter mission, Vidya Balan, who played the role of an Isro scientist, rolled a gas cylinder and pressure cooker into a meeting to demonstrate fuel economy, thus carrying stereotyping to a ridiculous extreme. Stereotypes persist, even if women constantly break them. 

The problem of the underrepresentation of women in engineering, physics, mathematics, biochemistry and other branches of science, persists, despite the fact that more women are enrolling in higher education in science and do join the scientific workforce at entry-level positions. Women in leadership positions in scientific institutions are still hard to come by. More than 50 women scientists were involved in the Chandrayaan-3 project, according to news reports, all of them well-qualified experts and women of science who have thrived in an organisational culture that aims to promote inclusion. The women of Isro prove year after year that outdated clichés about 'men being from Mars and women from Venus' are on shaky ground.

Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru and the author of ISRO: A Personal History, among other books. Find her six-part series for Mint Lounge on the history of the Kolar Gold Fields here.

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