Women are the face of India's Mars mission, but they're still the exception

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Marco Werman: Speaking of photographs, there was one this week that went viral and caught our eye. It showed scientists in India, inside mission control at the Indian Space Research Organization. They were celebrating after their spacecraft successfully entered into Mars orbit. And they’re women dressed in colorful saris, hugging and grinning with flowers in their hair. It’s a great photo, see for yourself at PRI.ORG. It went viral though because it focused on women scientists in what is usually thought of as a male-dominated line of work in India. That’s what we’re going to discuss now with our friend Rhitu Chatterjee, she’s a contributing correspondent for The World based in New Delhi, and before she was a journalist, she was trained as a scientist in India.

Rhitu Chatterjee: Women scientists are never the face space research and women scientist’s accomplishments are rarely celebrated in this manner in the Indian media. If you look at television, if you look at films, there are hardly any portrayals of women scientists. Not to say that there aren’t that many women scientists - I went to school with a lot of women who I trained in the sciences, a lot of my women friends are sciences, but they’re rarely the public face of big accomplishments.

Werman: The photograph of the command center kind of make it looks like there were mostly women in the room. Is that true? Do women outnumber the men in the space program?

Chatterjee: Actually, that’s not true. Women are still very much a minority. So the numbers that I saw was that 20% of all employees at the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) are women and 10% of all employees are women engineers. So that’s still 10% below the percentage of women engineers at NASA, so NASA has 20% women engineers.

Werman: So, assess for us just interest in science among young women - girls coming up through the school system in India, here we call it STEM. Are young women moving more into the sciences?

Chatterjee: Oh, definitely Marco. Even when I was growing up, there wasn’t that much of a sense that women shouldn’t be interested in science. In fact, when I was in school, some of the students who topped the class, they were women and they were fantastic in science, they’ve gone on to pursue degrees in medicine, in engineering or other sciences. So there’s definitely a lot of women getting into the sciences, as opposed to, having lived in the US for 11 years, having worked there as a science journalist, my sense is - again, I don’t have hard numbers - that India has more young women, young girls interested in science and getting into many scientific fields than in the US. But as to how many of them actually are able to stay on as a scientist in their professional career, that’s a big question and I think that’s where there’s a lot of setback, because there’s not enough support structures for women in science to pursue their careers once they get married and have kids.

Werman: I know you were at a dinner the other night where it just so happened there was a female scientist and you guys talked about this. What was the conversation like?

Chatterjee: This is a friend’s mother, she’s in her 60’s, she just retired and she got her PhD from one of India’s top technology institutes, in the Institute of Technology in Kanpur, and she wasn’t surprised at this picture. So I was trying to get a sense of what it was like when she was in graduate school and she said that she was definitely a minority. Again, my friend’s mother said when she was pursuing a career in science, she had a top scientist actually tell her “Why are you doing this? You have a young son. Shouldn’t you be looking after him?” So that’s the kind of resistance that women scientists have to face on a day-to-day basis. Things have definitely improved a lot since her time, but then I heard another story from a friend of mine, a civil engineer who lives in the US, she said a professor of hers here in India, when she was planning to apply to graduate programs in the US, refused to give her a recommendation and said “Why are you wasting your father’s money? Because you’re going to end up getting married and raising kids. Why pursue this and waste money?” Again, like there are also enough examples of encouraging professors, but then you also have this resistance. So you can see that while more numbers of girls are getting into the sciences, there might still be some resistance from the older generation.

Werman: Well, there certainly is a new motivator - Mars and space travel. Have you heard of any women, young or old, say in the last couple of days they want to be an astronaut?

Chatterjee: I haven’t heard of any but I can say this for sure Marco, girls looking at the picture, it’s going to expand their horizon, it’s going to open up their ideas of who they can be, what kinds of careers they can pursue and that’s the beauty about this picture and that’s why it’s so invaluable.

Werman: Rhitu Chatterjee, a contributing correspondent for The World based in New Delhi, great to speak with you Rhitu, thanks.

Chatterjee: Likewise Marco, thanks.

Werman: Again, you can see that wonderful photo of female scientists celebrating India’s Mars mission at PRI.ORG.