What Hidden Figures teaches us about Stem subjects

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A still of three women in the kitchen celebrating from the film Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women rocket scientists – the lesson it teaches us about diversity in today’s Stem industries is even more important now than then, says Caroline Taylor, vice-president and CMO for IBM Global Markets

The award-winning film, Hidden Figures, opened in the UK last week, recounting the true story of three African American women who worked at Nasa during the 1960s space race.

These mathematicians, or ‘computers’ as they were known Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were key to the success of the space programme.

It was their calculations that put men into space and brought them safely back to Earth, and yet their significant contributions to these groundbreaking achievements have largely been hidden from history. Their names never made it into the headlines or the history books… until now.

Hidden Figures depicts the extraordinary skills in maths, physics and engineering of these women, and shows us the sheer tenacity and courage required for their skills to be recognised and applied to solve life-or-death equations, to calculate complex formulae and to programme a first-of-its-kind computer system from IBM.

Katherine Johnson was a brilliant mathematician whose knowledge of analytical geometry played an integral role in putting John Glenn into orbit, and then putting men on the moon.

Mary Jackson fought segregation to become Nasa’s first black female aerospace engineer, and Dorothy Vaughan was a genius, a self-taught computer programmer who became Nasa’s first African American manager and one of the agency’s few female supervisors.

Their achievements were pivotal in achieving John F Kennedy’s ‘moonshot’ and serve as a powerful, early example of the power of woman/man and machine working together to change the world.

Yet despite such august achievements, they really were hidden figures. Because not only were they women, they were African American women. And in the early 1960s, talent and achievement were easily obscured by both casual and institutional prejudice.

But these fabulous women did not let this stop them, and through their relentless pursuit of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) skills, they excelled in fields where women (black or white) would otherwise have been excluded.

They are wonderful examples of the meritocratic effect of Stem skills, overcoming institutional prejudice, where the very nature of Stem – where achievements can be objectively measured – helps to overcome unconscious bias and subjugate prejudice.

This is an opportunity for any marginalised community, and the good news is that the number of Stem jobs is projected to skyrocket in coming years.

According to research, the UK will need almost 1.3 million Stem professionals by 2020, but universities and colleges are only graduating around 71,000 such students each year.

The need for women in Stem careers is particularly acute – in the UK, just 21 per cent of the Stem workforce are female.

As the world faces the challenge of creating a more inclusive workplace, Hidden Figures highlights the power of pursuing a Stem education, regardless of background and of the potential for women and any minorities to advance in rapidly expanding Stem careers.

Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan prevailed because they had measurable and truly valuable skills, which people could not ignore just because of their skin colour or gender.

And while they weren’t recognised in their day, the Hidden Figures film helps to right this wrong.

Today’s hidden figures

Despite progress, bias continues to obstruct too many talented individuals, and the film serves as a vital call to action to both business and academia – we still have far too many hidden figures in the world of Stem. We can and we must do more to find them and celebrate them.

This film makes it the perfect time to ask: who are today’s hidden figures?

Because there are many women, and people from ethnic minorities and other minority groups, all doing amazing work in Stem. It is crucial we highlight their stories to inspire those who may not believe they can access these opportunities to tap into their talent.

Hidden Figures spotlights what is possible when the finest minds are applied to solve the world’s greatest challenges, regardless of race, gender or any other facet of who they are.

When we look past someone’s external appearance and focus on their skills and capabilities, we can change the world.

When we focus on who they are, not what they are, we can reach for the stars – and go to the moon.

About author

Caroline Taylor

Caroline Taylor

Caroline Taylor is vice-president and CMO for IBM Global Markets

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