Recognise these names? Chances are that Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson aren’t familar.
These three remarkable women achieved great things, both at Nasa – in the space programme no less – and in society, yet it has taken over half a century later, in 2017, to tell their incredible story.
Their efforts ensured John Glenn was catapulted through the atmosphere and back safely, a huge leap for Americans in the space race, but their names are just a footnote in the history books. Indeed, little had been heard of their feats until President Obama awarded Katherine G. Johnson the Presidential Medal Of Freedom in 2015.
But now, thanks to 20th Century Fox’s film adaptation of book Hidden Figures, written by Margot Lee Shetterly, these incredible minds finally get the recognition they deserve, in the heartwarming – and often stark – film that received a nod for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards.
Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae all put in stellar performances as three downtrodden women of colour, whose talents shine through the restraints of racism and chauvinism.
The film – and book – centre on the firsts these women achieved – from becoming the first female black supervisor to the first black female engineer at Nasa.
Despite Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson’s daring and drive paving the way for other well-booted women to follow in their footsteps, half a century later, there are still too few women taking up pride of place in STEM industries.
The glass ceiling may appear to be broken but in the mindset of many women and young girls, this barrier may well still be in tact.
A new study by Science in January revealed that the rot of self-doubt started to creep in aged just six.
At such a tender age, girls, who are just in their infant years at school, fail to see that their own gender can be ‘brilliant; or ‘smart’.
With this debilitating mindset already started to cement into place, is it really any surprise why girls turn away in their droves from traditionally academic subjects such as maths, science and technology?
For girls to start school on this wrong foot, to inherently believe that their reproductive organs are enough to dictate their career, is a travesty and a reality check.
The problem, I believe does not necessarily stem in archaic attitudes but a failure to give young girls something to aspire to, to give them real confidence that they can achieve as much as they want – however far, whatever resistance they may face.
In the UK, I believe we are failing generations of girls, by not first giving them the belief that the impossible dream is possible – a notion achieved by this humble trio of articulate women, who had to battle against segregated toilets, segregated offices and segregated schools, in addition to sexism in 1960s America.
Later Neil Armstrong would utter the phrase ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’, but the reality is that we really haven’t, when it comes to equality between the sexes at least.
There are still too few female CEOs and still few women in high profile roles in STEM industries.
Children learn from example, and if they can’t see someone like themselves represented in their dream vocation, would they still believe they could be whatever they want to be?
Indeed, a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2015 told how boys routinely did better than girls at maths, and mostly because British girls felt they ‘just weren’t good enough’ at the subject.
Interestingly, the study also found that in all-girls schools, they were more likely to take subjects such as physics and maths.
I guess this could be in part down to not being exposed to a divide of subjects of the sexes. Since the whole make-up of the class is female, there can be no such thing as male-appropriate or female-appropriate classes. Seeing other girls choose STEM classes might give confidence to other girls to take them too.
But what about girls who are in a mixed-sex school setting? How can we encourage them into the sciences?
Firstly,we need to break the stigma that science, technology and maths is for men only, spreading this message from as soon as they can comprehend.
It is both a parent’s and a teacher’s responsibility to ensure that girls, as well as boys, are given the freedom of choice to the path they ultimately decide to walk down, free from prejudice, or social taboo.
At an private IBM screening of Hidden Figures, a panel of some of the brightest and most articulate female minds, including the likes of Saritha Arunkumar (IBM) and Ana-Rosa Broster (o2) , told of their own efforts to inspire the next generation with internships and workshops aimed at inspiring teenage girls. This is most definitely the right direction, but I believe, as a parent, that this needs to start earlier, before girls choose their GCSEs, A-Levels and degrees, to captivate them into STEM long before they sign off solely down an arts-only career lane.
Secondly, don’t celebrate inanity but make intelligence attractive. The media unfortunately plays a massive part in the direction girls choose to follow. Academic achievements escape the main headlines, in place of yet another selfie-obsessed scantily-clad Zelebrity on the front page.
In order for young girls to believe there is more to life than perfecting their lipliner and pose, we need to show them how invaluable bright and bold women are. Put the likes of Dorothy, Mary and Katherine in their consciousness. Make a Barbie of them if you have to, write board books featuring their name, tell your daughters all about them. But most importantly, make Hidden Figures a must-watch for any young girl, whatever her privilege or lack of.
Thirdly, while corporations like IBM offer esteemed staff flexible hours to carry out their important work in the office and at home, the majority are still playing catch up. Even now in 2017, part-time positions are scarce, and being a parent is often seen as an inconvenience than an asset.
Even the women who follow through into the world of science can soon fall through the cracks as they plan families. Some may never return to their working life, struggling to keep a lid on the balancing act that is being a working mother. It isn’t just stubborn bosses that help kill a career of a mother, but inflexible and extortionate childcare options that just don’t make working a viable choice.
Thankfully, baby steps are being taken to remedy this, with the Government introducing 30 hours free childcare for working parents in September.
But more still needs to be done.
I hope, as a mother of a daughter, that my girl will grow up safe in the knowledge that she can experience the joy of motherhood, as well as the personal and professional fulfilment that a career entails.
I do not wish her to grow up believing that women can only choose one.
And it’s worth mentioning that Katherine G Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were all mothers, who managed to juggle their career aspirations, as well as caring for their children.
If these three women can have it all, even in the face of adversity, racism and prejudice, then any girl can.