The defining photograph of India's successful mission to Mars, Mangalyaan, that was splashed all over newspapers and social media, was that of a group of beaming women scientists celebrating the moment.
The New York Times published a cartoon that cast a jibe at India's space ambitions when it was still a "cow" country. But perhaps even more incongruous was this picture of woman power, given the alarming headlines about gender-based violence that the country wakes up to every morning.
But even as the sex ratio continues to be skewed, there are Indian women who have battled all odds to make it to the top in male-dominated fields. Science and technology are often considered to be masculine disciplines but at ISRO, India's space research organisation, the glass ceiling has been shaken and shattered by its many women scientists.
Snapshots from Afar, Breakthrough's short film, is directed by Emily Driscoll. This film, on the women behind the Mars mission, captures the exciting leap that India took to space but also documents the one it took on land, in terms of gender.
The film features three women scientists - Seetha Somasundaram, the Program Director of the ISRO Space Science Program Office, Nandini Harinath, Project Manager, Mission Design, and Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, and Minal Rohit, Scientist and Engineer, Project Manager, Methane Sensor for Mars.
On course of the film, the three women share their contributions to the project and describe the moments of tension and suspense that they underwent when the satellite was launched. "You don't need to watch science fiction films if you work here," as Nandini Harinath puts it. Nandini has two daughters. In fact, her eldest daughter was studying for her Class 12 exams when Nandini was working on the Mars Mission.
Minal Rohit calls Seetha Somasundaram a "very strict lady", while discussing the nature of her work and how demanding a boss Seetha could be! She also speaks of how she was inspired as a child by seeing the white coat that scientists wear to become one herself!
Minal has a seven-year-old. Speaking to the Conde Naste Traveller last year, she said: "We think of our satellites and payloads as our babies, too. To us, they have lives. So the rules for office and home are common: Patience, Procedures, Priorities. If you’re patient, that’s half the battle won. Don’t allow for single-point failure; have backup plans in your mind all the time to avoid chaos. And you can’t be everywhere at once; so assign your priorities. The mind and heart have to be in sync. You must always be true to yourself.”
Though the film is more about the work that the women do than their struggle as women scientists to reach the top, Seetha Somasundaram does mention that previously, there were barely any women in the organisation and that now women scientists have become common at ISRO.
This second episode of Breakthrough's Science Friday deserves a watch and a salute: