Saturday, April 1, 2023
HomeOpinionBBC story on ISRO top engineer focuses more on her cooking than...

BBC story on ISRO top engineer focuses more on her cooking than her scientific work

Text Size:

Contrasting women’s professional achievements with their roles in the kitchen reinforces the caretaker stereotype.

Covering the work of women in the scientific community is critical when they are still thought of as being incapable of advancing in a STEM career for biological and societal reasons.

The debate was stirred yet again Monday when the BBC chose to publish an article that featured the life and work of the former director of ISRO’s flight dynamics and space navigation groups, B.P. Dakshayani. Moving beyond the obviously provocative headline, which the writer of a piece usually has no control over, it ignited several passionate discussions about whether it was a critique of oppressive patriarchy or a glorification of it. I am in the camp that believes it was the latter.

India is no stranger to the Working Domestic Goddess trope. We see it in our movies where the strongest women are the mothers and the grandmothers who manage to take care of their family at the cost of all happiness, and raise them to be successes. We see it in writings where women’s domestic roles are placed before their professional accomplishments.

Screenshot of a recent headline, when Dipika Pallikal is an Arjuna awardee and a Padma Shri recipient

Female film stars and athletes are constantly asked if they would retire after having children or they plan to take care of the family when working.

Think Indira Nooyi and you’ll instantly think of the phrase “(not) having it all”.

The Working Domestic Goddess is a compelling narrative that all readers and viewers can relate to and quickly lap up. They’ve seen such women in their family, and around them while growing up. It’s also very Bollywood. But women’s real lives are far from such narratives.

Also read: Two Indian journalists are bringing the women of science to life

Focusing on the domestic aspects of a woman’s success can very much take away the significance of it.

Comparing and contrasting women’s professional achievements with their roles in the kitchen again and again serves more to reinforce that women are the sole caretakers of the kitchen. It’s no secret that women are expected to be that, but glorifying working women’s family lives tends to perpetuate the stereotype that only women can and should take up domestic duties.

It also justifies discriminatory behaviour, such as denying promotions or asking women during interviews about their “family life” because a family will mean struggling with work.

Women are forced to drop out of their careers at various points in their lives because there simply is no other way out, even if they are capable of doing so much more.

Increasingly open discussions about sexism in journalism have led to new tests to check for gender bias in reporting. A popular one is the Finkbeiner Test, which checks if an article’s focus is on the woman’s gender over her accomplishments. It has its own limitations, of course, but other useful guidelines are being written regularly.

All of this isn’t to say that the struggles of women are to be ignored. Indeed, the BBC definitely needed to highlight her struggles, the lack of support, and cooking for nine people every morning before work. However, the tone in which these are highlighted makes a statement: are such expectations common yet unfair or are they not a big deal because they’re normal?

Also read: Indian women confined to the home in cities designed for men

The BBC piece – condensed from a detailed podcast – glosses over Dakshayani’s problems with a mere “It was tough, she admits” remark. It brushes aside her telling her husband that he never assisted her with the housework with an explanation that women are expected to multi-task and Dakshayani conformed to the norm with a brave face. It makes no big deal out of her childhood habit of running out to see the only female engineer in town. The piece seemed to focus much more on her cooking than on her work at ISRO. It reported the norm that nearly every professional woman – and women who choose to remain homemakers (and not “housewives”) – faces.

This kind of writing also serves to place men as the default: men achieving success is normal but women achieving the same success is extraordinary and exceptional. A third of ISRO’s staff is women with 70 holding top positions. Yet, the piece goes out of its way to state that another colleague who described the satellite’s trajectory was “(also female)”.

While women overcoming much more to be at par with men in the workforce is definitely true, such a narrative places a woman’s position as a cook, as a mother, and as a wife before her achievements outside the domestic household. These stories tend to trivialise the very struggles they mean to highlight. Such narratives are about how a truly hardworking, strong-willed woman will overcome all barriers and emerge victorious. Such women are Working Domestic Goddess.

Such stories further diminish women’s ability to achieve more of what they’re capable of outside the house as well as the need for men to partake in domestic chores, in turn increasing female workforce and reducing unfair financial expectations on men.

In nearly any story, writing without context does much more harm than good. If this piece did serve to highlight Dakshayani’s and Indian women’s burdens, an easier and less harmful narrative would have explicitly and easily stated so.

For those more aware today, it was a subtle expose; for those who aren’t, it was a reinforcement of how women just need more willpower to be successful. And what kind of thinking does India have more of?

Several women have paved the way for future generations, suffering so much more, and yet the younger women still have it no easier because of trivialising narratives and inadvertent perpetuation of sexist stereotypes.

Also read: Marriage stopped her from going to IIT, but she still became ISRO’s top engineer

Writing about women in the media should serve to break the shackles of oppression, not condone it because it’s natural and expected, because women have previously had it much worse, or even simply leave it to ambiguous interpretation under the pretext of being neutral journalism.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism