International Women’s Day: ‘Astronomy community does not discriminate’

Manasi Saraf Joshi
Sunday, 8 March 2020

A woman has been appointed as president of the 48-year-old Astronomical Society of India (ASI) for the first time. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, ASI President Anupama GC speaks to Manasi Saraf Joshi on challenges and scope for women in science

It has been a year since you have taken the reins as the president of ASI. What has been the experience so far?
The ASI is the only body of professional astronomers in India founded in 1972. I feel honoured to be the first woman President of the Society. The experience has been good. The members of the Executive Council have been very cooperative and proactive in the implementation of the society’s activities.

What changes did you observe after taking up the position? Do women scientists or girls aspiring to make a career in science come to you with less hesitation? Do they chat with you more freely and at length?
There have been several younger members of the community that came to me saying I have inspired them. That is quite gratifying.

According to a UNESCO report, only 14 per cent women of the 2.8 lakh scientists, engineers and technologists are working in R&D in India, as against the global average of 28.4 per cent. What is your take on this? What steps can be taken to improve the situation?
I feel the lower average is in the technology area, while the average in the scientific community is closer to the global average. In fact, nearly 33 per cent members of the ASI are women. 

This, of course, includes students and postdocs. The number drops to about 25 per cent when it comes to faculty. There has been an improvement over the years, and we hope it will get better with time. The best step to be taken to improve the situation is: hire more women!

You have been part of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project. What is your role in this project and India’s role in it? Which are other national/international projects are you part of?
India is participating in the Thirty Meter Telescope project at a 10 per cent partnership. 70 per cent of our contribution is in the form of supplying key hardware and software. India has committed to (a) supply of 84 polished segments for the primary mirror (the primary mirror consists of 492 segments), (b) providing all the components of the control system of the primary mirror - i.e. the support assemblies for all the 492 segments, all the edge sensors and actuators, (c) develop part of the telescope control and observatory software, (d) contribution of the design and development of one of the first light instruments.

I am a core member of the India-TMT project. Specifically, I am heading the India-TMT optics group, which is responsible for the delivery of the 84 polished segments. 

In addition to my participation in the TMT project, I am currently the in-charge of the Observatory at Hanle (Ladakh). 
I am the Indian PI of the international project GROWTH that is for observations of transients. As a part of this project, I set up a 0.7m robotic telescope at Hanle.

‘Generation of Gender Equality’ is the theme of the year. What has been your observations in terms of men scientists’ approach towards you or for that matter any woman as a boss? Or whether the scientific community is matured enough which does not discriminate between men and women?
I have not seen much difference in the way other scientists (men in particular) approach either me as their boss or the way they approached other men who were earlier in my position. I guess it is more the position than gender. Of course, I cannot say much about their behaviour when not in my presence! While I cannot speak for the entire scientific community, the astronomy 
community, in my opinion, is, by and large, quite mature and does not discriminate.

Could you say something about your background?
I have a very supportive and encouraging family. Parents provided us with a great childhood. When I look back, the feeling I get is one of joy, happiness and togetherness.

What was your dream as a young girl?
My dream as a pre-teenager was to become a doctor, which changed very soon! Science was always my passion.

What advice would you give to the young girls aspiring to make a career in science/astronomy/astrophysics and other areas?
Go for it. Science is fun and rewarding!

Do you believe in celebrating Women’s Day?
Not if it remains as just a ‘Day’, a tokenism. Meaningful, if it leads to better awareness of equality and respect for women. Else, it remains a farce, a day for people to make all the right noises and then forget and go back to their ways the next day!

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