‘Call us scientists, not women scientists’

Debarati Palit Singh
Saturday, 20 April 2019

Minnie Vaid’s book Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines — ISRO’s Mission to Mars — shines light on women working in scientific research and development sector

Minnie Vaid’s latest book, Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines — ISRO’s Mission to Mars — highlights some interesting statistics about women scientists not just in India but across the world. The book, published by Speaking Tiger, points out that only 28.8 per cent of women across the world are employed in scientific research and development sector; they are poorly represented in science academies — there are only 12 per cent female members in 69 science academies worldwide; only 17 women have been awarded a Nobel Prize in the three science categories since the inception of the award in 1901; the latest joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2018, Canadian Donna Strickland, is the first female laureate in 55 years and only the third woman to win in Physics. 

Why are there so few female scientists in general or why don’t they get as much push as their male counterparts? Vaid, a journalist-turned-author, tries to find the answers in her 220-page book interviewing the women scientists involved in the launch of Mangalyaan or Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), India’s first inter-planetary mission by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).   

Says the Pune-based author, “I had very little knowledge about women scientists at ISRO or the work they did till I attended a Women’s Empowerment Conference organised in Mumbai by IWN-CII in September 2016 (Indian Women’s Network — Confederation of Indian Industry),” she says, adding, “The featured scientists — Ritu Karidhal, Minal Sampath and Moumita Datta — all of whom played important roles in the Mars mission, spoke passionately about their work on Mangalyaan. That was the beginning of an idea which transformed into a published book by March 2019. I have to say, all of the women were magnificent indeed.” 

Excerpts from an interview with Vaid:
Survival is the first challenge for any author of a non-fiction book. “Apart from the time it took to write the book,” Vaid said, “the primary research involved interviewing 21 women scientists (some of them more than once) in different places such as Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Delhi, plus a visit to the Sriharikota Range or Satish Dhawan Space Centre to witness a launch, all of this involved time and money. I was fortunate to get support from Rajkamal Vempati who believed in the idea of the book right through the 2.5 years of its journey.”

Understanding the scientific terms and processes was hard for Vaid since she quit Physics and Maths (very gladly) in class 11. However, the scientists were patient in their explanations and simplifications of what must have seemed very basic stuff to them. “Attempting to write the book in a simple yet engaging manner so that it is relevant and read by the general public was tough. I hope I have succeeded in this goal,” she says.

Another challenge was the lack of information or statistics on women scientists inside ISRO and outside; there is no single port where one can ask for and receive empirical data. In some cases, I was told it simply doesn’t exist,” says Vaid, who has previously written A Doctor to Defend: The Binayak Sen Story.

The author did primary research that comprised multiple interviews of the scientists, including those of their male bosses. There was secondary research done prior to and after the interviews were conducted. “This helped with the second round of interviewing, but as I said, I did face a restriction when it came to acquiring updated data about women in STEM, in India as well as abroad,” she says. 

“I found so many women inspiring. I’d say all of them would be aspirational role models for young girls wanting to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) or a career in Space Science. Those who came from two or three-tier towns and cities and made it big in ISRO, heading projects and missions were the most impressive,” says Vaid, adding, “I was also struck by their matter-of-fact attitudes towards what they called the work-life balance, juggling multiple roles with ease — no mean task when your work is actually rocket science! None of them made much of the gender tag either, simply stating they were scientists, not ‘women scientists’.”

While working on the book, Vaid’s perception about ISRO and women scientists has changed considerably. Says she, “I had a very stereotypical image in my mind about scientists, (not necessarily women scientists), which was completely thrown away by the interactions with the ISRO women. They are regular, working women dealing with office and family like any of us. They didn’t seem to be people in their own insulated bubble. The latter image was based on my own lack of knowledge on this issue, but also a little due to gender stereotyping where science is still perceived to be largely a male domain.” 

“I have listed points in the book, based on available studies and reports; the laundry list includes some fairly generic factors common to working women everywhere, like day-care facilities at the workplace, transportation and flexible timings, representation on committees, family support, training courses to address the ‘leaky pipeline’ syndrome, initiatives to encourage women to get back to work after maternity and child rearing breaks. The Indian government has addressed the last one by introducing such schemes for women scientists, how far they are implemented is again a case for gender auditing,” adds Vaid.

She hopes that her book introduces the stellar ISRO women scientists to a lot of young girls wanting to pursue science. “I would like to ensure that the book reaches maximum number of schools and colleges in the country, to provide a glimpse of the usually-private world of the ISRO women as well as open up the path to space science for any girl who wants to reach for the stars!” she quips.

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