A hollywood gem
There’s a scene in the movie Hidden Figures where Katherine Goble, a genius mathematician and one of the African-American ‘computers’ working at NASA, loses her cool.
Standing amongst a team of predominantly white male colleagues, she cries out in frustration against having to walk over half a mile to the ‘colored’ ladies bathroom; her anger at having colleagues bring in and label a separate coffee urn just for her; against all of the prejudices she is facing as a black woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) in the 1950s.
It’s a moving reminder of just how intensely segregated 1950’s Virginia was, and, on the positive, a striking illustration of how much this extraordinary woman achieved in circumstances that saw her singled out, ogled at, and underestimated in her career.
On the negative, it’s a shocking, and perhaps timely, reminder of the realities of a world not so distant from us. One in which a black woman in STEM was an anomaly; of a society that accepted and condoned racist ideology, that legalised segregation, and that paid the price in violence for drawing dividing lines within society.
The movie is set in the early days of the space program, with Kennedy portraits in the study, and historical footage (for example of astronaut John Glenn, the first American in space), interspersed – and sometimes magically recreated for the story.
We are introduced early to the leading ‘hidden’ figures: Katherine Johnson, née Goble (Taraji P Henson); a mathematician who analysed rocket trajectories; Mary Jackson (a transformed Janelle Monáe), the first African-American woman to become an aeronautical engineer; and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) – a mathematician and the first African-American woman to work as a supervisor at NASA.
In an early scene, we see the trio as their ride to work breaks down, and Dorothy quickly bypasses the starter engine using a screwdriver. Meanwhile, the local policeman has come along, as is immediately suspicious of these three African-American women. Tickled by the fact that they are employed at NASA he gives them a police escort, prompting Mary Jackson to wryly point out the ‘miracle’ of three African-American women chasing a cop down the highway.
It’s a scene that is typical of the lightly ironic, insightful and inspiring ethos of the movie. The stories behind these extraordinary women were always going to be exciting; exceptional performances by all three lead actors (#Oscars) makes it unmissable.
The ‘colored computers’ employed at NASA that are highlighted in the film started with a group of five women in 1935. Johnson, who became an aerospace technologist and worked on the Space Task Force, was one of several ‘computers’ who moved into engineering careers.
It was particularly exciting to see three STEM fields – technology, engineering and maths – celebrated in the movie. Entrepreneurial Dorothy discovers the capacity of the newly installed IBM system to make tens of thousands of calculations a second, and teaches herself and her team Fortran in preparation for this digital disruption, advancing her team and making their careers viable once human computers were obsolete.
Leadership is a strong theme – by Dorothy Vaughan, and also by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the lead of the NASA team, who sledgehammers the colored bathroom sign in response to Katherine’s outburst. Without these leadership examples, we force the people facing barriers in their work life to lift themselves above – and fail to stand behind them.
There’s a stellar support cast – including lead geek Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) as engineer Paul Stafford, and a surprising and effective turn by Kirsten Dunst as Vivian Mitchell, a middle aged Virginian woman who says to Dorothy: “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all,” who replies “I know you probably believe that”.
This and so much else in the film is a reminder of how far we still have to go.
Just 11% of engineering graduates in Australia are women. Yet, surprisingly women are paid on average $3000/year more than men in engineering professions.
One of the key takeaways from the film is the need to continue to break new ground. These women’s stories are played out at a time when humanity itself made its first reach for the stars. It was a time when society was driving towards ‘firsts’: first into space, first in orbit, first to the Moon. These women created their own firsts – breaking a trail for those who follow.
But like falling snow or shifting sands, these trails are easily covered unless we seek them out, reinforce them and lead our followers – the next generation – with us. So that they don’t have to spend their energy forging their own firsts – but can set their sights on the stars instead.
Click here to see a lecture by Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book the movie is based on.
– Linda McIver
Featured image: Janelle Monáe, Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer star in “Hidden Figures.” PHOTO: HOPPER STONE, TM & ©2016 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX FILM CORPORATION
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Author: STEM Contributor
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