Hidden Figures: Inspiring STEM heroes for girls

There is a much-loved aphorism used by parents of all generations that says “you are what you eat.” I would also suggest that a similar phenomenon holds true for career choices: “You become what you see.”

By that I mean that most of us go on to careers or lifelong passions that are rooted in who inspired us as impressionable teenagers. Perhaps it was an amazing teacher, an impressive family member or a particularly appealing film or television character.

Unfortunately, cinema often does society a disservice in that very few strong, independent women present compelling career choices for our young girls. That few dwindles to almost none when you look at female leads that show a career path for girls interested in science and math.

That is why I was particularly excited for the release of Hidden Figures, a film that depicts the true story of the African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson and her two colleagues, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. These women, and many others, worked in the segregated West Area Computers, a division of Langley Research Center, as part of NASA during the Space Race against Russia. Their work directly contributed to John Glenn becoming the first American astronaut to make three complete orbits of the Earth.

If you have seen or heard me speak, you know that I believe the way the media portrays careers in the tech industry and the way society views smart women are two of the primary reasons so few girls pursue careers in STEM-related fields. I have even been known to harp on the Big Bang Theory character Sheldon Cooper as an example of the media’s steadfast resolution to portray the STEM professions — and technology in particular — as populated by anti-social, hoodie wearing (or poorly dressed) white males.

So I was also a bit nervous when our volunteers and girls were invited to a special screening of Hidden Figures. I was eager for a feature-length film that profiled women as important historical figures because of their intelligence and STEM-related contributions. But I also noted that Jim Parsons, the actor who portrays the aforementioned Sheldon Cooper, was in the film. Was this destined to be another Hollywood version that undermined its potentially strong message by pandering to society’s common misperceptions?

Does showing more female science, technology and math leaders on film and TV help girls see themselves in that light?

Well, I am pleased to report the movie is all I could have hoped for. At its most basic level, it is a rewarding, compelling film. It’s rare to be part of a movie audience that erupts in spontaneous applause during the middle of the film!

And on a much deeper level, it is even more fulfilling. It depicts these women as the brilliant and driven mothers, friends and colleagues that they were. Importantly, it does not shy away from how they were initially dismissed and treated because of their race and gender. But it also shows us how the greater goal of putting a human into space trumped any preconceived notions of these women’s abilities.

Our group was made up of our participating girls, their mothers and our volunteers, and all were enthusiastic about the movie. They were so excited to learn the stories of these women through a film that showcased their abilities as engineers and mathematicians, and that highlighted their role in overcoming this enormous challenge. Here is just a sample of some of their more insightful observations after viewing the film:

“This is my story. You need to see it to believe it and to be it.”

“This movie will encourage my daughter to work harder because she wants to be an engineer.”

As an ardent moviegoer, I have seen an uptick in the number of strong female leads over the last several years. However, the type of women portrayed in Hidden Figures remains rare. My own thoughts and the reactions from our girls aside, does showing more female science, technology and math leaders on film and TV help girls see themselves in that light?

In 2006, actress Geena Davis established the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to answer precisely this question. The institute sponsors research and highlights the inequity of female characters in TV and the movies. A 2012 study analyzed movies, prime-time television and a selection of children’s shows to examine the portrayal of gender roles and occupations. The research found that STEM careers are portrayed sparingly across these mediums, and are often heavily weighted toward the physical sciences versus other related fields. For those STEM careers that do make it to the screen, men overwhelmingly depict them — to a much higher percentage than the real-world male/female STEM split. You can find the entire study here.

Back to my opening and our mantra: “You become what you see.” Hidden Figures was an important and inspiring film, but it cannot stand alone. It is critical that we find ways to bring more projects like this to fruition, because it is one of the most powerful ways to inspire young girls to pursue STEM-related careers. We must reverse the trends found in the Geena Davis Institute study if we want to chart a new course for our girls.

I can only hope that Hidden Figures is the proverbial “shot over the bow” that those of us in the tech industry have been waiting for. Let’s begin by tracking the impact of this film on our girls. A study done about the connection between an increase in female archery interest after the debut of Hunger Games and Brave — two movies that depicted heroines who were archers — found that the number of girls participating in national archery competitions doubled from the previous year. I am confident that a study conducted in 2018 will find the number of African-American girls — and perhaps girls in general — enrolling in programming courses will have increased dramatically by then as a result of Hidden Figures.

But how do we keep that ball rolling? Share your ideas for how we can increase the roles for strong female STEM leads in entertainment. John Glenn trusted Katherine Johnson to be part of his team; he didn’t care that she was an African-American woman — only that she was the best at her job. This is the message we must communicate more widely. In this way, we can normalize society’s view of women as computer scientists to be the rule, rather than the exception. As Ms. Johnson’s boss, Al Harris, says: “We all get there together — or not at all.”