Like most award-nominated films, Hidden Figures was a must-see during its opening weekend. Based on true events and Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same name, the two-hour feature is a dazzlingly heartfelt story that uncovers the historic contributions of mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). The three black women play an integral part at NASA in the American space race of the 1960s, with focus on Johnson’s exact calculations of the launches and landings of astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell).
However, aside from the obvious triumphs of these women in the face of roaring racism, the film’s indirect focus falls on the necessary role of black women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
Today, young black women are often discouraged from pursuing careers in STEM due to gender and racial bias, microaggressions in the workplace and the lack of mainstream representation. How can a young black girl know what she can achieve in science if her heroes are erased from history or their work is eclipsed by that of white men?
The Wired found that only 26 women with STEM jobs were depicted on screen across over 5,000 speaking characters out of 129 G-, PG-, and PG-13-rated top-grossing films from 2006 to 2011. Out of that number, three were African-American.
Without question, these factors have had real-life impacts. In 2013, according to the National Science Foundation, 828,000 black or African American women were employed in science and engineering-related occupations compared to 7,641,000 white women. And in 2015, African-American women represented three percent of the computing workforce and one percent of the engineering workforce, the American Association of University Women reported. This same study also dissects the large-scale problem of women leaving STEM, including blacks.
Sequestering stories like Johnson’s, Vaughn’s and Jackson’s (which beat out “Rogue One” for the top spot in sales, by the way) is a grave disservice to the black female minds that are masterful at math and science. Uncovering the history-making work of these women and others like them widens young black girl’s dreams in STEM and provides the necessary motivation to remain unwavering regardless of workplace obstacles. Henson said it best during her visit on “The View.”
“I just remember being upset,” she said about her first reaction to the script. “As a little girl, I was always told ‘Oh don’t worry about math and science. That’s for boys.’ What do you mean? Women are scientifically and mathematically wired and had very important positions in history. That’s a dream I did not know belonged to me. Who knows, I could’ve been a rocket science.”
More importantly, by shutting out black women in STEM spaces, solutions in these industries are left undiscovered. Without Johnson’s final-hour calculations for Glenn’s orbital flight around the Earth, would Americans be among the stars?
It’s questions like that which confirm black women add not only much needed diversity to STEM industries but also ingenuity, productivity and innovation. They increase the chances of solving problems and inching towards greater success. The same way we praise the superhuman athleticism of Serena Williams and the vocal range of Beyoncé, we need to herald the brilliant black women of science and math.
The point is, black women deserve a welcomed seat at the STEM table. They are deserving of encouragement for their ambitions, mainstream portrayals and support. Hidden Figures proves that black women have the answers, Sway, and also that black women in STEM on the silver screen are as profitable as any space franchise.
It’s a win-win the world can’t afford to miss out on.