‘Hidden Figures’ Spotlights Black Women in STEM

STEM program

Hollywood’s imagining of tech culture may have minimized women — particularly women of color — but ‘Hidden Figures’ is changing all that.

The screen adaptation of Margot Lee Shetterly’s biographical book Hidden Figures shows a poignant conversation among three Black women who work at NASA during the civil rights movement. During their lunch break, the protagonists have a heated discussion on sexism and racism in tech jobs in the 1960s. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) quips to her colleagues Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), “Every time we have a chance to get ahead, they change the finish line. Every time.” When it comes to diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), her sentiment still rings true.

STEM programTaraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Glen Powell, and Janelle Monae in Hidden Figures / Twentieth Century Fox

In 2017, there’s still a huge disparity when it comes to representation of women — particularly women of color — in tech. Despite marketing efforts to attract young women into STEM programs, the NCWIT reports that 25% of the information technology workforce are women and less than 10% are women of color.

According to a study provided by NGCP, women’s involvement in STEM jobs is far behind that of men. We’re living in a high-tech, digital world. Success is distributed unevenly and women (of color, in particular) have to be prepared and work really smart to even get a foot in the door. Yet more diversity in the tech industry has documented benefits. Research shows gender-balanced teams outperform homogenous teams in terms of productivity, organizational effectiveness and financial health.

STEM programMatthew Broderick as David Lightman and Ally Sheedy as Jennifer Mack in the 1983 film WarGames / MGM/UA Entertainment

While the tech industry has long captured Hollywood’s imagination, its fictional representations have perpetuated exclusionary stereotypes. For example, the indelible media portrait of a hacker is either pimply teenagers in their bedroom hacking into top security systems (it started with WarGames and Weird Science) or the deviant lone wolf. Classic lone wolves range from Goldeneye’s Boris Grishenko, a cowardly, misogynistic Russian hacker, to Mr. Robot’s Elliot Alderson, a sensitive, depressed young programmer drawn into the anarchist movement fsociety.

STEM programCarrie Ann Moss as Trinity in Matrix Reloaded / Warner Bros

When female hackers are shown in films, they’re usually portrayed as young, thin, conventionally attractive, leather clad… Think the stoic yet highly skilled hacker Trinity in The Matrix, the wide-eyed cybersecurity specialist Angela Bennett in The Net and the tough girl with the heart of gold Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

On the small screen female techs are often molded in the trope of the “secret” computer wiz who nobody, at first sight, suspects is handy with computers. This reflects stereotypes about who is — and who isn’t — adept with technology. Examples include Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, junior sleuth Cindy Mackenzie in Veronica Mars and technical analyst Penelope Garcia in Criminal Minds. And then there’s the shining example: cute superhacker Felicity Smoak in CW’s Arrow.

Images matter, of course, and Hollywood has the ability to influence diversity in STEM programs.

In contrast with media representations, historically women have made countless contributions to STEM. Many early computer programmers were women. The computer language Ada is named after Ada Lovelace (1815-52) because of her pioneering math work with Charles Babbage. Six female mathematicians on the WWII ENIAC project contributed to programs for one of the world’s first fully electronic general-purpose computers. Women on the original Apple Macintosh team contributed to our favorite tech and icons. Sophie Wilson, who is transgender, was responsible for the ARM processor used in most smartphones.

Though women helped to create modern tech, their accomplishments have been largely overlooked in popular culture. And with few exceptions, the small percentage of female tech wizards who have been shown on-screen have been white. But Hidden Figures is changing that.

STEM programOctavia Spencer, Taraji P. Hensen, Janelle Monae in Hidden Figures / Twentieth Century Fox

Hidden Figures is a biographical drama film which tells one of the many untold stories of minorities working and succeeding in STEM programs. The film is unique in that the main protagonists are Black women who were working in STEM in the early 1960s, a time when many working women were funneled into teaching and nursing careers and there was almost no inclusivity in the workplace.

The film follows three math and science experts, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who played important roles at NASA. Their pioneering work and precise calculations for spaceship trajectories became the barometer of technology at the time. Their work helped ensure that John Glenn would become the first American to orbit Earth in 1962 and that the US would lead in space exploration.

Fortunately, today there are many growing initiatives to make the tech industry more inclusive. For example, TechGirlz focuses on inspiring young women to enter STEM fields. Programs like these along with networking, culture change, role models and representation will help more women enter the tech industry.

Hidden Figures shows the challenge of creating a more inclusive workplace and the power of women contributing to tech. The hopeful message of the film is still relevant today. end

 

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