‘ISRO provides a very positive atmosphere. What matters here is your talent, not your gender,’ says Ritu Karidhal, Deputy Operations Director, India’s Mars orbital mission, Mangalyaan.
A fascinating excerpt from Minnie Vaid’s Those Magnificent Women And Their Flying Machines, Isro’s Mission To Mars.
IMAGE: Indian Space Research Organisation scientists and engineers cheer after India’s Mars orbiter successfully entered the red planet’s orbit at ISRO’s Spacecraft Control Centre, Bengaluru, September 24, 2014.
The Mars Orbiter Mission cost $74 million or about three-quarters of the amount to make the Oscar-winning movie Gravity about astronauts stranded in space. Photograph: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Reuters
The URSC complex has a sprawling old-world charm, incongruous to the elaborate security measures.
An impressive canopy of greenery — with ancient, gnarled trees and several rows of recently planted additions — liven up the otherwise staid government structures on campus.
Armed with the required pass, I enter the main building where my bags and person are checked again, before being politely waved through to the first floor.
I wait for Ritu Karidhal in the airy, well-appointed room and she enters exactly on time in an elegant salwar kameez, which prompts compliments from the secretary who follows with a coffee tray.
Ritu has a pleasant face and a slightly stocky build.
She wears rimless spectacles and a red bindi.
She has a quiet, earnest air about her and an unhurried way of talking — especially while explaining complex scientific procedures.
As she speaks eloquently about ‘slingshot manoeuvres’ and the ‘velocity near the perigee and apogee’, I begin to wish that I had paid more attention in my school physics class.
Noticing my confusion, she patiently gives me a crash course on the basics of how the Mars Orbiter satellite operates.
Then we backtrack a little to her childhood dreams and aspirations.
A flashback reveals an uncommon fascination with the universe, particularly the moon.
‘When I was quite little, maybe three or four years old, I remember we used to travel by those hand-pulled rickshaws in my hometown, Lucknow. And I would think the moon is walking with me wherever I go.’
‘When I slept on the terrace, I would feel the moon following me everywhere. So I’d wonder about it, and ask myself these questions even before I went to school,’ recalls Ritu.
I ask her what sparked this curiosity so early in her life.
‘I was a calm and quiet child, who didn’t talk much and preferred to read. Even in the extreme summers in Lucknow, I remember I would get lost in my book and forget to switch on the fan.’
‘And then my mother would come in, scolding me and asking me to rest,’ says Ritu, smiling nostalgically.
At school Ritu was a good student, excelling at mathematics.
She also had a vivid imagination.
‘I would picture myself surrounded by numbers, writing poems related to mathematics,’ she chuckles.
School was fun, with supportive teachers encouraging her enthusiasm for science, along with her parents.
‘Twenty years ago there weren’t too many opportunities for girls in small towns. We didn’t have a lot of facilities. Even going to college from my home, I had to take a rickshaw or auto or bus.’
‘Travelling wasn’t easy but I had that inner passion, that curiosity to know and to do something.’
‘That perseverance convinced my parents to support my studies. In so many families, girls cannot do this. They are only expected to work at home. This kind of thinking decelerates their growth.’
After a six-month stint teaching physics at Lucknow University, Ritu was selected for her very first job at URSC, ISRO, in Bengaluru.
She had always kept a meticulous track of what ISRO and NASA had been doing, reading and preserving newspaper clippings about landmark events, such as the first NASA rover landing on Mars in July 1997.
She had also looked out for ISRO’s advertisements for vacancies, and when one did come, she quickly applied.
Her graduation and post-graduation grades in physics (later followed by an MTech in aerospace engineering from IISc, Bengaluru) and her performance at the ISRO interview led to an immediate selection and a dilemma for her parents.
‘Lucknow to Bengaluru is a distance of more than 2,000 km, so my father took one week to decide if I should join ISRO. My mother assured him that I would be able to manage, and I came here,’ says Ritu.
She is also thankful that her parents didn’t pressure her about marriage.
After a few years she got married in the traditional ‘arranged’ way to Avinash Karidhal, an engineer working with Titan.
Ritu joined ISRO as a young engineer in November 1997.
Her physics background led to her first posting in the Mission Analysis division with Dr Kesava Raju as her boss.
‘The first problem he gave me was very difficult — how to manoeuvre a satellite to get a stereo image from the onboard camera. I was very happy that I could straightaway apply what I had studied in physics and mathematics in my first job.’
‘I completed the work he gave me in three or four months, and it was implemented onboard. Later, I got more projects, which were all very challenging.’
‘People talk about deadlines today, but even then there used to be projects where we were very hard-pressed for time and the targets had to be met,’ she says.
IMAGE: ISRO scientists and engineers watch Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi on screens after India’s Mars orbiter successfully entered orbit at the Spacecraft Control Centre in Bengaluru, September 24, 2014. Photograph: Abhishek N Chinnappa/Reuters
The deadlines were often as short as three or four months, and Ritu remembers working round the clock to meet them.
‘I was a bachelor then and lived as a paying guest. I would work continuously from morning to evening, but I enjoyed it because I liked my work.’
‘Not many girls were working at ISRO at that time and when I stayed back at the labs, there would be very few people around.’
‘Even the walk down the long corridors from one lab to another, or from one building to the other in the URSC campus would be fairly lonely. But I never felt any fear.’
The universe was, and continues to be, her workspace.
Besides her own passion, Ritu credits the senior scientists who expressed confidence and trust in her capabilities for her success.
I ask her about the work environment at ISRO, and more importantly, the gender equation, given that today women constitute approximately 18.8 per cent of the total workforce — 3,188 out of 16,902 employees — with an even lower strength of 16 per cent in the technical category (1,978 women out of a total 12,300 scientists and engineers).
In keeping with the overall position of women scientists across India, where scarce or almost no updated data is available for those holding top positions, ISRO too has not had a woman chairperson or director for any of its sixteen centres.
Although several women are project managers and project directors, while a smaller number are senior programme directors, group directors and deputy directors.
IMAGE: ISRO scientists and engineers monitor the movements of India’s Mars orbiter at the Spacecraft Control Center. Photograph: Reuters
‘ISRO provides a very positive atmosphere. What matters here is your talent, not your gender.’
‘You get challenging work. For my first assignment, many senior men were eligible, but it was given to me.’
She concedes that the stereotypes in the world of science — the image of the male doctor and the female nurse, for example — need to change.
‘And it is slowly changing,’ says Ritu, with ISRO itself breaking the glass ceiling gradually.
‘Senior women scientists in the fields of remote sensing and communication satellites have become programme directors, and once the numbers increase, a woman director will not be a rarity,’ she adds.
‘Nor will the public recognition and awards for women scientists be as novel a phenomenon as it is today.’
India’s top national science award, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar prize has been given to over 500 scientists since its inception in 1958.
Only sixteen of these have been women.
In 2017, not a single woman took home an award.
Not enough women are nominated for these awards to make the shortlist.
Globally too, out of all the 881 Nobel Prize winners from 1901-2016, only 48 were women, while the Fields medal for mathematics has only once had a female winner — Iranian-born Maryam Mirzakhani in 2014.
Ritu received ISRO’s Young Scientist award in 2007 for her work in mission planning and operations.
She pays little heed to unspoken discrimination, whether it is a condescending remark by male colleagues or the fact that women are often overlooked for promotions and patronage at conferences and committees.
‘I don’t worry about what others might say. People can say anything, it does not matter to me.’
‘Even at home you find relatives or friends commenting in a certain manner, but ultimately when they see the depth of the work or its relevance to society, or view ISRO as a whole, they change their views.’
‘God has created everyone equal, but due to pigeonholing — “Your work is this and only this” — they are not able to break out of their assigned gender roles.’
‘But if you work without the fear or assumption that others will stop you, or that you won’t be able to manage so much, if you break the internal glass ceiling first, those roles can change.’
‘The rules can change.’
‘You need to first show how high you can climb. Someone else not allowing you to get ahead –that comes later,’ she avers.
Ritu’s mantras combine pragmatism with hope, as she outlines how they have worked well in her own career.
‘Family, marriage, pregnancy breaks, children — these are all part of life and cannot be treated as mutually exclusive from your work,’ she reiterates.
Time management is the key to a successful work-life-family balance for Ritu — a refrain I will hear several times over at ISRO.
‘When work began on the Mangalyaan mission in 2012, my son was nine and my daughter was four, but it wasn’t as if I was only working and not available at home. Because if I am a proper mother, my own feelings will not allow me to do that.’
‘So we have to multitask and double the effort. Work here, then go home to your family and spend time with them…’
‘Then start your work again late at night when they are asleep. I did many things from home.’
Ritu configured a small setup on her laptop, and used to be up till three or four am, completing tasks for the mission.
‘I did feel physically exhausted, but you can overcome this exhaustion in different ways.’
‘When you see the output and what you’ve achieved by putting in extra effort, that is worth it,’ she smiles.
Did she have to work twice as hard as a male colleague to be taken seriously in the office?
‘We put in as much effort as our male counterparts do here, but then we have to put in equal effort once we go home.’
‘So we are a bit hard-pressed for time. But I feel women are capable of doing that…’
‘There were times when it was difficult to manage both home and office. I remember a time when my daughter had high fever and I was not able to take her to the doctor.’
‘My husband took care of her. I called regularly to ask about her fever — I felt really guilty about not being with her.’
‘There were times when I couldn’t attend school functions or PTA meetings or be home when I was needed.’
‘But the one thing that gave me strength was my family’s support.’
‘I am convinced that without the help of family and friends, it is not possible — for a woman at least — to cope with the increasing demands of the workplace.’
IMAGE: Ritu Karidhal and her family. Photograph: Kind courtesy ritu.karidhal/facebook.com
Does she think that the traditional mindset will change, so that the family is equally the man’s responsibility?
‘They (husbands) may not be able to fully do what we can do at home, but if they support us at the time of need, if they understand and at least allow, that itself is huge.’
‘Some women would not be allowed to stay back late in office, but my family understood the high pressure I was under.’
‘Mars, especially, was something new for all of us…’
‘I would come home late many times, work odd hours, but my children rarely complained and my husband’s understanding made a big difference.’
‘If I had had to face problems at home, then my mind would not have been at peace and my work would have suffered.’
Excerpted from Those Magnificent Women And Their Flying Machines, Isro’s Mission To Mars, by Minnie Vaid, Speaking Tiger, Rs 299.