Thursday, April 20, 2017

Hidden Figures: Lessons in Race, Gender, and the Importance of Funding Science

When I finished reading Rise of the Rocket Girls, I had to stop in my local book shop to grab Hidden Figures. While Rocket Girls details the women who worked as human computers at the Jet Propulsion Lab on the west coast, Hidden Figures focuses on a group of African American women working as human computers on the east coast at the Langley Research Center, first as part of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and later part of NASA.

Hidden Figures is a bit denser in terms of the history and a bit less focused on the narratives of the individual women at the heart of the story. The author Margot Lee Shetterly has beautifully described how she came to tell this story, which is deeply connected to her life in Virginia, where her father worked for NASA's Langely Research Center and where all the family friends were connected to NASA in some way. As a result, the author has a very unique perspective on the lives of the young women who broke the boundaries at the NACA/NASA. Based on her initial research and interviews, she started The Human Computer Project, which aimed to document all the people who worked in this capacity at NACA/NASA. As she did this, she started to find the story that would become the book Hidden Figures. This careful research and detail is evident in every page of the book. In the epilogue, the author describes how hard it was to choose what stories to tell if you're finally bringing people's contributions to the space race to light, it can be hard to leave anything out!

As a result, the book is structured around the historical events that the women are connected with and driving forward. Interestingly, the movie complements the story perfectly in this respect. I admit that, in an unusual turn, I decided to watch the film as I was reading the book; this really helped me put the stories together into a linear (albeit much too simple) narrative. Don't get me wrong, the film was not without fault, oversimplification of the story was not as glaring as the white savior problem. (History vs. Hollywood has a good summary of the things the film got right and wrong.)


Because Hidden Figures has achieved such strong critical acclaim, there are plenty of excellent reviews of the content (e.g., The New York Times and The Atlantic), so I decided to focus instead on why it's so important that this story has been brought to light in 2017:
- We need to remember the realities of segregation.
- We need to remember the limited opportunities available for women in mid-century America
- We need to remember what can be achieved when we invest in science and technology.

Remembering the realities of segregation
Here is where I need to ask forgiveness for my ignorance of history. I have been studying science for many years, and this focus has meant that I have missed a lot of other important things, with history probably being at the top of the list. In my defense, I bet that lots of people, especially white folks or those educated in the south, were never taught about the realities of segregation. This is the first reason I think this book seems particularly relevant right now: we are at a time in our history when we seem to be moving backwards in terms of civil rights and we are at the risk of wiping out the truth of these events that happened only 60 years ago. Just as some deny the moon landing or the roundness of Earth, some want to erase this history, which they paint as being exaggerated (e.g., Betsey DeVos' suggestion that HBCUs were pioneers in school choice and the revision of Texas state history textbooks to downplay Jim Crow.)

Hidden Figures also reminds us that even after the obvious signs of segregation were removed, the less obvious and more pernicious elements of segregation persisted. For example, the book details how computer and engineer Mary Jackson's son was the "first colored boy to win" the local All American Soap Box Derby. While there was no explicit rule that black boys couldn't enter the race, it just wasn't something that would register to people in the black community. Even if someone did hear about such an event, there were still barriers to participation, which Shatterly's description perfectly:
"The electrified fence of segregation and the centuries of shocks it delivered so effectively circumscribed the lives of American blacks that even after the current was turned off, the idea of climbing over the fence inspired dread."
Unfortunately, people of color continue to be under-represented in STEM fields. Data from the National Science Foundation states that minorities (of any gender) make up only 10% of the STEM work force, despite being about a quarter of the population (statistics from 2015). A 2015 survey of women of color in STEM reports on the "Double Jeopardy" that these women face in their jobs. Women reported being mistaken for janitors and that they were likely to have to "prove themselves again and again" (covered here).  

Katherine Johnson (Taraji Henson) at work in Hidden Figures

Remembering the limited options for women in mid-century America
The story of the female computers at Langley Research Center also highlights the contribution of women in STEM before the age of women's liberation. Before that time,
women were generally limited to jobs as nurses, teachers, or secretaries. Even the jobs that women filled during the war were chosen for their simple and repetitive nature. This is why so many women joined computing groupsthese were considered to be menial and repetitive tasks that required an attention for detail. Of course, even when women got the jobs that were suitable for their skills, they found their employers willing to say goodbye as soon as they got married or pregnant. (Remember that employers in the US were not required to give family leave until 1993.)

Even today, women are still not equally represented in STEM fields. Perhaps most troubling is the "leaky pipeline", where women are getting an equal number of advanced degrees as men, but are not securing high level jobs. There are a number of causes for these inequities (e.g., the confidence gap), but few solutions are clear. 

Implicit bias is another problem. The Implicit Bias test can help uncover your blind spots. As a woman of science, I was surprised to learn that I had some bias in associating men with science, particularly engineering and physics, where women are still in the lowest numbers. Interestingly, the author of Hidden Figures always thought scientists and engineers were black and middle class because that is what she grew up around. Hidden Figures reflects Shetterly's upbringing by portraying many positive black women in STEM. Recent data shows that girls as young as 6 start self-selecting out of STEM fields and already associate boys with inherent smartness and girls with hard work (coverage in the LA Times). Thus, it seems we need to start raising awareness of the prevalence of women in science and engineering. Some suggest that seeing more women and people of color in roles like this can encourage young women to chose STEM careers. 

It is frustrating to consider how many stories like Hidden Figures and Rise of the Rocket Girls still need to be uncovered. I recently read a post from Hilda Bastian, who has started a crowd-sourced project to get pictures of female scientists for their Wikipedia pages. She explains her rationale: "Pictures are one of the main drivers for whose stories get told and shared. So expanding the pool of women we can 'see' matters." Going forward, I plan to contribute to this project and look for ways to highlight the accomplishments of women in my daily work.

Remembering what we can achieve when we fund science and technology Finally, Hidden Figures highlights a time when America invested significant financial resources into science and engineering. The "space race" was clearly driven by a competitive and antagonistic spirit rather than an adventurous and scientific one; our entire purpose for going into space was to beat the Russians. (Ah, mid-century America, when our relationship with Russia was less complex)

Of course, the decision to put "Whitey on the Moon" rather than focus on the problems at home received criticism, especially when the competition for resources was an ideological war thousands of miles away (link checks out!) It's always been difficult for scientists to make the case for scientific funding. Our elected representatives might not understand why a project on the salamander axolotl could have benefits for regenerative medicine in humans or why a study on fruit flies could have an impact on cancer or how understanding the way an animal poisons its prey could help us develop pain killers, but now more than ever we need to invest in science

The Apollo missions gave us many important, indirect benefits: cell phone cameras and baby formula;, improved athletic footwear and solar panels.; and memory foam and precision GPS. Reminding people of what great things can be accomplished when we adequately fund science is an important part of doing science these days. Funding for NASA and other scientific organizations in the government has an excellent return on investment, which I plan to detail further in my next post about the upcoming Science March
Every day in this post-truth world, I really try to stay positive about the future. For me, Hidden Figures helped. I think the story highlights a time that is considered to be the height of the American empire (read: when America was Great), when these young, gifted, and black women put pencil to paper to propel us to the moon and beyond. I plan to watch Hidden Figures with my son and remind him of these important lessons. I recommend reading or watching Hidden Figures so you can benefit from Shetterly's perspective and knowledge as well.

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