In 2014, A power-packed team at ISRO led by space scientist B.P. Dakshayani cheered aloud as the spacecraft successfully entered the orbit of the planet Mars without deviating from its path. The Mars mission was accomplished after a collective effort of scientists who sailed through all the unforeseen obstructions to make it a success. However, in a recent interview with Dakshayani, the media lens decided to shift the focus from the tedious space mission to the culinary skills of the achiever.
The BBC report subtly validated the idea of deifying working women who are equally skilled at rolling out round rotis as they are with writing complex codes. The report manages to convey this very idea in multiple ways. From its title to images and themes, everything repeatedly neglects their profession as scientists and moulds them into caricature goddesses who adeptly juggle between work and home without complaining about it.
Titled Rocket woman: How to cook curry and get a spacecraft into Mars orbit and written by Geeta Pandey, the report begins by talking about how waking up early in the morning would help her prepare food for everyone. “Can you guide a spacecraft into orbit around Mars and cook for eight people morning and night? Yes, if you get up at 5 am…”, says the initial few lines of the report perhaps to keep you hooked till the end because who doesn’t want to read a story of a science expert who also loves to perform “extra-terrestrial stunts” at home. Waking up at 5 in the morning to cook for eight people and then reaching office on time to ace the space mission is no less than an ‘incredible’ act.
who doesn’t want to read a story of a science expert who also loves to perform “extra-terrestrial stunts” at home?
But before we could pause for a while to re-analyse her family’s unhelpful lifestyle, the writer mounts her at a higher pedestal by emboldening the phrase where she draws analogies between computer coding and cooking curry (why curry? Because BBC!). “I say cooking is similar to coding – just as one small change in the code will result in a different number, similarly a small change in ingredients will result in a different taste”. This might have come out in flow during the interview but dedicating extra space to this and highlighting it in bold letters says a lot about the writer’s affection towards working women who codes in office and cooks curry at home.
Out of the many pictures used to make the interview look visually appealing, we get to see only two pictures related to the satellite mission. The rest are about her working in the kitchen (with a vibrant smile of course) or looking after her kids. The husband also makes a guest appearance in one of the pictures only to take credit for always supporting his wife, thereby usurping her individual efforts. There does come a sigh of relief when the scientist calls him out for not adequately contributing in housework but the anger seems to subside under the giggles that follow.
The trend of deifying working women (especially in the field of science) is not a recent phenomenon. Back in 2016, BBC did an extensive coverage on all the women scientists in the team again focusing more on their ‘life after work’ schedule than their individual contribution to the Mars mission.
The article mentions how they would sleep at 1 in the night and then wake up at 4 in the morning to prepare breakfast for everyone. Further, the emphasis is made on their multi-tasking abilities and how they managed everything ‘despite’ all odds. “At the time of the space mission, my son was 11 and daughter was five. We had to multi-task, manage time better, but I think that even when I was exhausted at work, I’d go home and see my children and spend time enjoying with them, and I’d feel better and they would also like it”, said Miss Ritu Karidhal, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, in the report.
Unlike the previous article, this one has images of women celebrating together and in their work mode but the narrative intermittently shifts to their household responsibilities and their managerial prowess at the home front. Furthermore, back in 2014, another BBC report resorted to similar language where Nandini Harinath (Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission) was asked to talk about her experience as a physicist as well as being a mother.
the emphasis is made on their multi-tasking abilities and how they managed everything ‘despite’ all odds.
Instead of focusing on the space mission, the reports focus on their “sarees and flowers in the hair” and how they managed to look after their kids while handling the mission. All of this collectively leads to valourisation of motherhood, thereby burdening them with unnecessary responsibilities. The valourisation has been internalised to a level that their contributions are assessed in terms of the sacrifices that they make. This is evident by how women scientists (or any woman achiever) are spoken about in the media.
Back in 2013 a science writer and journalist, Ann Finkbeiner spoke about existing gender biases in the articles on women scientists. She argued about how focusing on her family background ignores her intellectual abilities. She explains why it is extremely important to not mention the gender of a scientist and pay more attention to her profession. “I am not going to be blindly, aggressively, egregiously ignorant of her gender”, concludes Finkbeiner.
Taking it further, another science journalist Christie Aschwanden, devised the Finkbeiner test as a writing tool that discards stereotypical tropes. Although written with the perspective of women in science, the test can be extended to other write-ups as well. Any article is said to have failed the Finkbeiner test if it mentions any of the following:
- The fact that she’s a woman
- Her husband’s job
- Her childcare arrangements
- How she nurtures her underlings
- How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
- How she is the role model for other women
- How she is the “first woman to….”
Clearly, the BBC report on B.P. Dakshayani fails the test as it mentions all the above points in detail. Her identity as a woman is repeatedly pointed out, her husband’s profession of a physician is highlighted twice, we get to know of her childcare arrangements multiple times, and also how her female colleagues consider her their role model.
In 2005, Cory L. Armstring and Michelle R.Nelson observed these stereotypes are fostered due to the media’s representation of women. For instance, if articles on women scientists talks about their childcare arrangements and their husband’s jobs and stories about male scientists exclude all this information, then the reader automatically makes the assumption that the burden of looking after children is only for the woman to bear, that prioritising the spouse’s job over their own is something that only women are supposed to do.
Moreover, the overemphasis on her family’s support throughout her journey implicitly extends all the credit to her family and neglects her own hard work. Also, her ‘hard work’ is portrayed as something to look up to, normalising the fact that woman is the one who is supposed to look after her family even if she takes up a tedious profession. And even while writing complex programming codes for orbital dynamics, her mind should whirl around the curry that she would have to cook for eight people as soon as she reaches home because in a family of eight, who else will cook if not her?
Featured Image Source: BBC