A red vermilion dot (bindi) is worn by women, placed at the centre of the brows; in Sanskrit – referred to as the Ajna or the focal point. It is believed that this area is a region that helps in the development of the self and an area considered as an intellectual doorway. Bindi is considered the point at which creation begins and may become unity. It is also described as the sacred symbol of the cosmos in its unmanifested state. Women in India and parts of the sub-continent wear this as part of their daily routine as it signifies marital status and well-being of the family.
Traditionally adorned by the womenfolk in Indian households, recently, a lady in the control room of NASA’s Mars landing program had this same red dot on her forehead that set Twitter on fire. Dr. Swati Mohan, the launch control operations head was as confident and composed in her seat as would any homemaker dishing out a meal. Her words relayed one of humanity’s most significant achievements in space exploration of the century. This very imagery of the red Bindi, considered to be symbolic of a homemaker, is set to change the narrative.
“Touchdown confirmed,” said operations lead Dr Swati Mohan at around 3:55 PM Eastern Time (2055 GMT), as mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena erupted in cheers. A video of the moment, released by NASA, shows Dr Mohan wearing a small bindi on her forehead – a detail that was quickly picked up on and became a talking point on desi Twitter.”
Throughout my 15+ years of working with the Indian Defense and Space research organisations, this was not an uncommon sight. Being an extremely technical area with complex math, physics and engineering disciplines, the inherent bias is to expect bespectacled men sporting strands of grey, emitting an aura of intelligence. However, several leading programs and teams that I interacted with have always had women, young or experienced, from leading and prestigious schools and as much at ease about Semiconductors, Space Electronics, Optics as anything else one could imagine.
Well that is the reality!
Contrary to common perception, India leads the world with over 43% of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines according to a UN report.
While that is great, it is not enough.
Globally, Gender Gap Index (GGI) is a measure economists and statisticians use to measure the gender inequality of a nation. While GGI is a great marker of progress in terms of overall population and health as well as female infant mortality, we need a far more effective and practical means of measuring the mindsets of a society, cultural and economic opportunities, which are all potential barriers in women entering the mainstream of STEM related areas.
We have many a success stories that are inspirational, right from Mrs. Sudha Murthy who was the first female student in her engineering batch and went on to be the first lady engineer of TATA group, to Kiran Shaw who catapulted her knowledge and interest in science to creating a valuable enterprise and Dr Tessy Thomas, program director of missile systems, the women led team of India’s Mangalyaan moon mission, who are all symbols of change and inspiration to a whole generation. Professor and biologist Chandrima Shaha is the current and first woman president of the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in its 85 years of existence. Dr. Priya Abraham and her team developed a COVID-19 virus diagnostic tool that has been validated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and received a 100% performance rating.
STEM by itself is a very wide canvas in terms of the disciplines addressed, the most common perception is perhaps that the stream of computer science and software is most suited for women, owing to the large employment potential. Medicine and Biosciences, are yet another stream perceived to be very well suited to women. While this is a great and positive force, helping families move across the economic strata and foster independence, there are several core STEM areas such as Mechanical, Physics, Civil and related streams of engineering where women are still a minority. Faculty in these areas are predominantly men and this is a cycle that can be changed only when there are more girls in their schools and colleges, who can be mentored, supported and nurtured to open mindsets and present opportunities.
Families, which are invariably the fundamental building blocks of every society, need to play the first and major step in this direction. Girls should be provided ample opportunities and avenues to explore. From choice of books, gifting leisure and hobby activities, facilitating network and communities, all of these matter and make a difference in sparking interests and creating impact.
While it is nice to take pictures of our daughters in a garden of flowers, I believe more parents and others around them need to channelize their curiosity and probably get them a ticket to a planetarium, or gift them a DNA kit or an aero-modeling class. A telescope and a roof can set dreams of astronomy, and kindle interest in space physics. Developing a scientific temperament usually stems from a pursuit of seeking, asking more questions, observing and experimenting. While most schools and colleges perhaps do this as part of the prescribed curriculum, an environment that fosters such activities helps shape the outlook from an early age. A lot of learning happens outside the classrooms. Camping in the outdoors and navigation in the night sky without the use of gadgets, for example, is a great way to understand the sense of direction using stars as markers. Encouraging young adults to actively participate in special interest groups and clubs, mentoring and peer level activities of shared interests are a few of the many initiatives that can help shape the outlook towards science.
Societies shape the minds and future leaders, and we are ones to make it. Next time, let the red vermilion remind you that Perseverance landed on Mars, the red planet.
Ajay Raman is – at heart – a Bangalorean, a Josephite and everything that the 90s of the city offered. With an entrepreneurial career spanning high technology industry to being planted outside his home country in the middle of his career, life – for him – has been a very immersive and indulgent experience. Known to be highly perceptive, Ajay often pens in these experiences that find a home in his writings and poetry expertly blended with conversations and music.
*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*
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