Hollywood isn’t best known for its accurate portrayals of science. All too often movie scientists are portrayed as geeks, crazy, eccentric and often the bad guy. But the latest Hollywood offering, ‘Hidden Figures’, takes a more factual view in examining the significant role of black women working for NASA during the 1960s space race.

The Oscar-nominated movie centres on the challenges and achievements of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, who were among the many hundreds of unheralded NASA workers helping to put astronauts into space, and return them safely to Earth. The film, while telling the stories of these individual women, also reflects the racial and gender inequalities in the shifting economic, social and political landscape during this time.

The women worked as human computers, performing complex mathematical equations and calculations. Katherine Johnson did trajectory analysis for John Glenn’s orbital mission in 1962, at the request of the astronaut himself. Although the calculations had been made by a digital computer, Glenn wanted her to check that they were accurate.

Science is full of unsung heroes, particularly, but not exclusively, women. For every Marie Curie, or Ada Lovelace, there are many more whose names will never be remembered.
While we may watch ‘Hidden Figures’ and think how different things are today, women are still under represented in jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

According to a 2015 survey carried out by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), only 9% of the engineering workforce is female. In the UK, less than 10% of engineering professionals are female – the lowest percentage in Europe. This is perhaps not so surprising, when you realise that the proportion of young women studying engineering and physics has remained virtually static since 2012.

Worldwide, UNESCO data shows that when it comes to college, university, and vocational courses, only 25% of those studying engineering, manufacturing and construction are female. With such a small percentage of women choosing to study STEM subjects, the possibilities for careers in these areas become more limited.

In the book on which the film Hidden Figures is based, author Margot Lee Shetterly talks of her home town as a place where she would regularly see women working for NASA, in science and engineering roles.

“Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.”

Margot Lee talks of women in technology as seemingly commonplace in the 1970s. Does that still hold true today? It doesn’t feel like it.

Being able to identify careers as possible, attainable and even ordinary is one way to make sure that the opportunities are open to everyone. And yet, according to recent research from the University of Illinois, girls as young as seven are already forming ideas about gender and intelligence that could steer them away from careers in science and engineering. Researchers found that girls were less interested than their male counterparts in games that the team described as being designed for “really, really smart children.”

What does this mean for future careers in science, and technology and subjects traditionally seen as the domain of the smart and intelligent?

There will always be individuals with the talent, drive and determination to make their way in whatever career they choose. The kind of people that will seek out hidden role models and, not just follow in their footsteps, but carve their own way. But for real equality, STEM needs more than just a few token female figures to show that there are rewarding careers for women in these areas.

‘Hidden Figures’ is a film that shows what is possible and that pays tribute to the often unnoticed work that goes into science and technological advances. That women play a part in that is still an important message to get across. And maybe the announcement that toy giant Lego will release a set of five female Nasa scientists, engineers and astronauts based on real women who have worked for the space agency, may provide a small nudge to help change thinking among the young. But it will take, much, much more to truly address gender and racial inequalities in science and technology.

2015 IET skills survey
WES Useful Statistics
WORLD ATLAS of Gender Equality in Education
The Story of NASA’s Real “Hidden Figures”
The History Behind ‘Hidden Figures’
Hidden Figures, Revealed: The Inspiration and Science Behind the Film
Hidden figures: showing the importance of women in science
Hidden figures: the history of Nasa’s black female scientists
How your daughters future doors may already be closed by the time she is six
Young girls are less likely to believe their gender is brilliant as they age
Women of NASA

Posted by Michelle Nicol

Freelance Writer, Wordstruck Writing and Training - Michelle is a freelance writer, trainer and tone of voice consultant who helps businesses tell their story through words that attract attention. A former BBC journalist, she also runs professional and creative writing workshops.