In 2010, Margot Lee Shetterly developed a newfound curiosity for her hometown of Hampton Virginia and its history of producing some of the most brilliant minds in mathematics and engineering… minds that happened to belong to women, particularly women of color.
“As a child […] I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.” – Margot Lee Shetterly, In Hidden Figures
During one fateful trip home for Christmas, Shetterly started asking her father questions about his work at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), questions she had never asked before. Soon she embarked on a journey to explore the people behind our country’s first spaceflight missions, people who worked at NASA’s first field center in Hampton, Virginia. Her investigation become an obsession, she writes in her book Hidden Figures, as she uncovered the names and personal histories of nearly 50 black women who worked as human “computers,” engineers, mathematicians or scientists at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory from 1943 to 1980.
The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, could barely recruit enough female computers to keep up with demands; from their perspective, women were the most conscientious and detail-oriented of mathematicians.
Shetterly’s book is a culmination of years of investigation into the women of color who worked for the NACA/NASA as computers before computers were machines. Earlier this year, her book was transformed into the Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures. Here at the LSU College of Science, we were so moved by Shetterly’s story of Langley’s East and West Computers, or what were segregated groups of mathematically brilliant women, that we are organizing a public event to view the film and discuss hidden and no longer hidden figures in STEM. Our screening of the film and panel discussion will take place at the LSU Union Theater on Friday, March 17, 2017. But to inspire you in the meantime, we’ve asked our Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy and undergraduate math major and CxC Distinguished Communicator candidate Amy Adair to talk to us about Hidden Figures and what the film meant to them.
College of Science: What were your impressions of the film Hidden Figures and the struggles for women and women of color in STEM that the film represents?
Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy: The roles of women in the scientific advancements of the twentieth century have often been unsung. Even more so for women of color. Amazingly, pioneers like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Dr. Shirley Malcom, Dr. Jewel Plummer Cobb, and many others went unnoticed. While we have many new visible role models, like Dr. Mae Jemison and Dr. Jeanette Epps, women of color are still dramatically underrepresented and underutilized within the U.S. scientific enterprise.
I am thrilled about the Hidden Figures motion picture and the opportunity it affords to celebrate the accomplishments of shero scientists, mathematicians and engineers who with dignity and grace have made world-changing scientific contributions. I am grateful for this moment in history to recognize and embrace the legacy of these African American women, hidden figures who are hidden no longer.
College of Science: What issues do women of color in STEM still face today? How have these changed over time?
Zakiya Wilson-Kennedy: The struggles that the female scientists, mathematicians and engineers depicted in Hidden Figures faced are different than the ones that women of color in STEM face today, and yet there are some similarities. To understand the progress of women of color in the American STEM landscape, I want to share two research studies conducted within the last half century.
In 1975, a group of minority women, comprised of Black, Latina, Native American and Puerto Rican individuals, met and began talking about their experiences as scientists and engineers in America. Dr. Shirley Malcolm, director of Education and Human Resources at AAAS, served as the lead author of the 1976 study that emerged from these discussions, “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science.”
The report chronicled how “-isms” often limit the professional advancement and mobility of women of color. For Black, Latina, Native American, and Puerto Rican scientists, the vestiges of racism were still prevalent and result in what we now describe as macroaggressions and microaggressions that undercut their scientific contributions.
Sexism plays a role in how people view women in STEM and the opportunities that women are afforded. Often, the professional experiences of highly competent women are clouded by a double taxation of being a person of color and a woman.
Some of the most poignant moments of Hidden Figures illustrate how this double taxation of being a minority and being a woman impacted the work of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and many others like them.
Amy Adair is a junior majoring in mathematics with a concentration in secondary education and a minor in French. We asked her to tell us more about the math behind the film Hidden Figures.
College of Science: Hidden Figures focused on three phenomenal women in STEM whose talents transcended ethnicity and gender. Which character did you most identify with and why?
Amy Adair: I truly admired all three women in the film. Each of them were unique in their interests, but they all demonstrated an outstanding work ethic and a relatable sense of humor. However, out of all three characters, I most identified with the main character, Katherine Johnson. After doing some research on her, I learned that she also studied mathematics and French as an undergraduate and went on to teach high school after she graduated. The film showed her to be studious and passionate about her work, and I think she acts as an excellent role model for aspiring mathematicians.
College of Science: The central character was Dr. Katherine Johnson, an innately outstanding mathematician. She referred to a number of formulas that she used when completing her calculations. Of these formulas and/or equations, which were you familiar with? Can you explain the formula/calculation?
Amy Adair: I love to see math represented in films! Hidden Figures begins with a delightful scene of a bright 12-year-old Katherine Johnson describing to a high school class how to find the roots of a quadratic equation by factoring, a topic covered extensively in Algebra I. She factors the equation first and goes on to explain that she can set each factor equal to zero in order to solve for the roots.
This scene parallels another later in the film in which Katherine Johnson astounds the Friendship 7 committee at NASA by demonstrating her extraordinary computation abilities. Instead of factoring quadratics, she computes the exact latitude and longitude coordinates of John Glenn’s landing. She first converts the angle measurements from degrees to radians and then proceeds to evaluate a formula for these given measurements. Although the equation-filled chalkboard did not receive enough screen time for me to discern each of her calculations, certain aspects, such as the trigonometric functions sine and cosine, definitely stood out as familiar procedures.
College of Science: What was your favorite part of the film?
Amy Adair: My favorite part of the film was the depiction of the women’s relationships with one another. They supported each other in every aspect of their lives. They carpooled to work, attended church events, and supported one another inside and outside of their jobs at NASA. They laughed and danced together after long hours of work and encouraged one another to persevere despite the hardships they faced. This dynamic added to the charm of the characters and really enhanced the uplifting mood of the film.
College of Science: What scene(s) were more difficult to watch?
Amy Adair: I found it most difficult to watch the scenes that involved cutting examples of racial discrimination. Throughout the film, the women experienced numerous instances of discrimination. Often, these instances occurred in the form of off-handed comments made by their coworkers and people around town. The consistency of these microaggressions became grating as the film progressed. At one point, Kirsten Dunst’s character, Vivian Mitchell, stops Dorothy Vaughan in the bathroom and tells her, “[d]espite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” Vaughan smiles and responds, “I know you probably believe that.”
Although a brief conversation, this exchange highlights a deeper issue concerning racism that persists even today. It calls to our attention the necessity of our personal awareness in how we participate in systematic forms of oppression and how our generalizations and prejudices may negatively affect how we talk and interact with others. This eye-opening scene from Vaughan’s perspective shows how important it is for us to be conscientious of our language and behavior and to ensure that we treat all people with respect, regardless of our preconceptions.
College of Science: How did the movie make you feel?
Amy Adair: The film did a wonderful job of appealing to the audience. I felt like I could really put myself in the shoes of those three women. With each setback and each triumph, I felt like I was right there with them. I could tell the other people in the theater felt the same way, too. It was empowering to see these women succeed.
College of Science: In your opinion, how have the roles of women in STEM changed since the 1960’s?
Amy Adair: From my point of view, there has been a significant increase in the number of women in STEM majors and careers, and I think these numbers will continue to rise as more and more young women see themselves represented in these fields. Nonetheless, the individual experiences of women around the world differ greatly.
In the film, Mary Jackson says, “[e]very time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.” I can imagine there are still many women who can relate with that statement and who encounter similar kinds of difficulty in their educational pursuits. It is important that collectively we help each other “reach the finish line” in achieving this aspect of social equality. This is one reason why I believe teaching is such an impactful career. A good teacher can recognize a student’s abilities and potential, introduce new topics and ways of thinking, and foster unbounded creativity and innovation. A good teacher is a helper toward the finish line – for everyone.
College of Science: What is your overall view of the movie?
Amy Adair: Overall, I found the movie incredibly inspiring. These women are true role models for anyone working in or toward a STEM career. They exemplified grace and poise in the face of adversity and achieved what many found impossible. I highly recommend checking it out!