Seeing Is Believing – The Women of ISRO

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A review of Minnie Vaid’s ‘Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines’

Written by: Abhishek Chari

Living and working for over 400 days on Earth’s coldest continent, Antarctica,  Mangala Mani helped collect valuable data from India’s satellites. Moumita Dutta and Minal Sampat toiled for almost twice that time in a light-and-sound proof room on complex technology that continues to work in the harsh vacuum of space. Nandini Harinath and Ritu Karidhal helped calculate the trajectory for India’s Mars Orbiter spacecraft to reach the Red Planet in 2014 and put together software to self-correct problems on its journey. The list of women and their achievements is quite incredible, but these descriptions are not fiction; they are fact. These are just a few of the Indian women who have done great things in service to their country. If you want to know more, read Minnie Vaid’s new book, ‘Those Magnificent Women and Their Flying Machines – ISRO’s Mission to Mars’, published by Speaking Tiger.

Life isn’t fair. In our daily lives, we witness many injustices, large and small. But, quite often, we don’t acknowledge this reality. We wish to imagine our society as a just and impartial one, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But, turning a blind eye to the state of our world prevents us from changing it.

There are a lot of ways in which the society we live in can be improved. For now, let’s consider the issue of female empowerment. Even in our otherwise modern 21st century, women do not have access to the same opportunities as men. This is due to a variety of reasons that range from the cruelty of female infanticide to the banality of lesser pay for women whose job responsibilities equal those of men. Such problems continue to be major roadblocks for social and economic progress. But, what can a young girl, growing up in today’s world, do about it? As children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman said, ““If you don’t like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time.” Minnie Vaid’s latest book showcases more than 20 women who have done exactly that, using their own work and lives to show us what is possible. One step at a time.

They Do What Needs To Be Done and Say What Needs To Be Said

Each of the interviewed women come across as unique individuals, their distinctive voices shining through the text. They have all travelled their own roads to reach where they are now and they are not afraid to talk about it. Their scientific and technical skills are an asset to every ISRO mission that pushes the boundaries of India’s capabilities in outer space. In the midst of performing their duty to the nation, and as well as they can, they live their lives and help take care of their families. To her credit, Minnie devotes a good deal of the book’s pages to the women’s stories, told in their own words.

The women hold key roles in various space-based projects that range from creating new technologies to designing applications that benefit every Indian citizen. From speeding up satellite image processing and tracking cyclones to putting together a mission to the moon; from engineering optical and microwave payloads for satellites to predicting oceanic conditions for fishing and shipping: they have a hand in everything. Not just in the Mars Orbiter Mission from 2014 but in many others missions and projects too.

Beyond technological achievements, their experiences also speak in a way that’s very easy to relate to. The nostalgic recollections of childhood interests and budding dreams. The familiar intersections of work and family, children and spouses. In addition to their dedication to getting the job done, they find many ways to cope with the stresses and strains of their jobs and families and engineer a degree of work-life balance.

Even with ISRO’s shelter and provisions, they had to stand up for themselves before they could get there. Here is a piece of advice from Anuradha T.K, one of the most senior female scientists at ISRO, about what to do when families might not be entirely supportive to women making their own life decisions – “That is when you have to put in additional energy to make it happen, not by cutting vegetables but by convincing them. You have to make your family understand what your priorities are. It is your life after all…”

ISRO also benefited from the women’s drive and energy to find their ideal work-life balance. Arundhati Misra, a scientist and engineer who directs the group for Advanced Microwave and Hyperspectral Techniques Development, talks about how she helped start the first creche at ISRO – “There were no creche facilities in ISRO in the 1990s, so I led a two-woman taskforce to install one. We approached Dr Deepti Rastogi, the only woman deputy director in SAC till date. She did pioneering work on INSAT-1A but today, not many people know about her. It took some effort to convince her that we would work better with a crèche on campus and that we would not be taking time off to check on our children instead of working. She finally agreed to a six-month trial. We had to make do with a driver’s quarters and a little plot of land. We made swings out of car tyres and that was the first creche at ISRO. I put my son in it to lead by example, and once it was successful, it was upheld as a case study in management. My son is an IIT-Kanpur electronics engineer today with his own start-up.”

The Women That Men See

The guiding principles of Vikram Sarabhai, ISRO’s founder, may form part of the reason for ISRO’s support for its female employees. Here is a quote from him that Minnie Vaid uses to open the final chapter of her book – “I have often claimed that I have had but one good idea in my life: that true development is the development of women and men.”

Some of the administrators at ISRO, both male and female, make it quite clear that they encourage and designate women to take up technically and professionally demanding projects and positions at the organisation. As Tapan Mishra, director of ISRO’s Space Application Centre at Ahmedabad, says, “When I took over as director, women’s roles revolved mostly around paperwork. I started putting them in satellite integration. I was ruthless: if this meant women had to stay up all night, so be it. And today, in this campus, you will find women at the forefront of many integration jobs that have tough delivery schedules…”

… And Those They Don’t

Today in India, it is still most definitely an act of courage for a girl or woman to imagine that her future will be entirely in her control. Minnie highlights the incongruity of the nation where teenage girls aspire to higher education and specific careers, with the reality of India where such dreams are often destroyed. Its not hard to find evidence for this disheartening reality when some colleges introduce higher admission cutoffs only for girls, where marital rape is not recognised as a criminal offense, where skewed male-female sex ratios, influenced by female infanticide and more than one kind of preference for sons are still looming problems.

A grassroots level change is required to uplift societal standards about what is permissible and what isn’t. Governmental interventions in the form of affirmative action are a much needed part of this process. But, in the long run, people’s attitudes and behaviours have to change in order for women to have a chance at securing their future. There are still many barriers to women realizing the returns on their education, despite all the progress. And reforms to improve female inheritance of ancestral property and wealth have been met with backlash from sticky conservative socio-cultural norms that continue to disadvantage women. So, in addition to being educated, women need to be empowered economically and socially in order to achieve lasting progress.

Both men and women, need to outgrow the mental biases that deny women agency over their own lives. Vaid’s book, and the ISRO women engineers, scientists and administrators it showcases, are positive examples for women and society to emulate.

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

Maybe there is a young girl or woman in your life who aspires to do great things. Perhaps you are her mother, sister, brother, or father. Best friend, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, colleague, boss or teacher. The specifics of your relationship do not matter. What does matter is whether you care. If you are someone who has a woman in your life and you care about her, then you must read this book. Time and again, the women in this book mention the support of their families and role models, without whom they could not have achieved all that they have. Think about what you can do so the women you care about can say the same things about you in the years to come.

Female leadership role models are shown to be a significant source of aspirational support to young girls and to society. ISRO’s women are working within the system, ushering in a more equitable society while doing their jobs to perfection. Through all their narratives runs a strong core of service, supported by a will to succeed and an indomitable work ethic. But, even while they serve as a vanguard for the empowerment of all Indian women, they do not lose sight of their responsibility to their families, their colleagues and their country. We sincerely hope that after reading this book, every Indian citizen can clearly see and believe in their responsibility to help India’s women achieve all that they can.

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