On 17th February, 20th Century Fox released the award-winning film, Hidden Figures, in the UK. The film recounts 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 program. It was their calculations that put men into space and brought them safely back to earth, and yet their significant contributions to these ground breaking 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 program a first-of-a-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 and (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) + 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 discriminated-against community, and the good news is that STEM jobs are projected to grow at skyrocketing rates in the 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 STEM students each year. The need for women in STEM careers is particularly acute - in the UK, just 21% of the STEM workforce is 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.
Katherine, Mary and Dorothy prevailed because they had truly measurable, truly valuable skills, which people could not ignore just because of their skin colour or gender. These skills delivered tangible results. And whilst they weren't recognised in their day, the Hidden Figures film helps put this wrong to right - by telling the story of these inspirational women whose expertise ultimately outweighed the prejudice. Despite this progress, bias continues to obstruct too many talented individuals, and Hidden Figures 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 gives us a fantastic reason 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 that we highlight their stories to inspire those who may not believe they can access these opportunities - to inspire them to tap into their hidden talent in the world of STEM.
Hidden Figures spotlights the art of the possible when the finest minds are applied to solve the world's greatest challenges, regardless of their race or 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 go to the moon, and reach for the stars.
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