Hidden Figures reveals role of women in STEM

Sydney Roslin Sep 11, 2016
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On February 20, 1962, John Glenn made history when he became the first American to orbit Earth. His name plastered headlines, his story was told across the country. Yet, his story is not his alone to tell. Behind the scenes, an entire agency was working to help Glenn return home safely, including Katherine Johnson, a African-American research mathematician for NASA who is one of the subjects of the upcoming biopic, Hidden Figures.

Hidden Figures focuses on the contributions that Johnson, along with her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, made to America’s technological achievements during the space race. These women were members of a division of NASA known as the West Area Computing unit, a group of female, black mathematicians that were segregated from the rest of the agency. The women were known as “computers” in the age before NASA used electronic computers, and were originally hired during World War II to fill in the gaps left by the soldiers overseas. However, NASA kept many of these women after the war.

In 1953, Johnson was moved to Langley Research Center’s Guidance and Navigation Department. A brilliant mathematician, Johnson was responsible for calculating the trajectory of Alan Shepard’s spacecraft
during the mission where he became the first American in space.

By the time John Glenn’s mission was being put into practice, NASA was using electronic computers rather than mathematicians. However, Glenn requested that Johnson specifically recheck all of the calculations made by the electronic computers. Her mathematic skills were critical during the Apollo Moon Landing Mission, as well as the start of the Space Shuttle program. Johnson has been awarded honorary doctorates, the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award, and even the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which she received from President Obama this past November.

In a time when black women in science were few and far between, Johnson carved out a place for herself in the scientific community. Despite the fact that she was hired to be a part of a cloistered unit of black women, a result the conflicts between laws that prohibited discrimination in the country’s defense industry and contradictory Jim Crow laws, Johnson was able to make herself seen not just as a member of her gender or race, but as a scientist in her own right.

However, few women, and even fewer black women, ever have the chance to prove themselves in scientific fields. According to the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, as of 2006, black women earned only 0.34 percent of PhDs in computer science and only 0.58 percent of PhDs in engineering. In physics, only 14 black women received PhDs between 1973 and 2012, compared to 22,172 white men, according to the National Science Foundation.

For a long time, STEM fields have been a white man’s world. Many female scientists, and female African-American scientists in particular, have talked about their experiences trying to break into this world, their frustration over not being taken as seriously as their male counterparts, and their feeling of being overlooked due to their gender or the color of their skin. Even today, women often find that they have to prove themselves in order to be treated as equals in STEM fields.

These gaps can be traced all the way back to childhood. A 2011 study on math-gender stereotypes in elementary school children reported that as early as the second grade, boys tend to associate math with their own gender while girls tend to associate math with boys. Girls have significantly fewer scientific role models to look up to, since fewer female scientists have reached that point of prominence in their fields. Nola Hylton, a research scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, said in an interview with Mic.com that young black girls are often discouraged from pursuing sciences because there are very few people who look like them that are actively working in the field.

Efforts are being made to fix these gender and racial gaps. In schools across the country, programs are being instituted to encourage girls to get involved with STEM fields. More and more young women are entering college to pursue STEM degrees. However, there is still plenty of work to be done. At Carnegie Mellon, for example, about 30 percent of the undergraduate students in the College of Engineering are female, which doesn’t sound very equal until you compare that statistic with the national average of 20 percent.

Perhaps the media is the way to show women that they belong in the STEM world. By highlighting and celebrating the women that have changed the face of science, such as Katherine Johnson, young girls can see that historical racism and sexism can be conquered. Through their stories, we can inspire a new generation of women that will change the world.