Women engineers discuss ‘Hidden Figures’ and lingering challenges
CLEMSON — The non-fiction book and its film counterpart “Hidden Figures” revealed the genius behind the American space race in the 1960s: a cohort of black women who, despite segregation and discrimination, applied their genius in math and engineering to help send our rockets and astronauts into space and bring them back safely.
But the look back at the trailblazing women casts a light on racial and gender disparities that still exist in science, technology, engineering and math, said three Clemson University black women engineers.
“Even though we may not have some of the more explicit racism and even barriers against women that existed back in the 1960s, often many women do struggle with the same issues,” said Renee Cottle, assistant professor of bioengineering at Clemson.
“Often, many women are underestimated, as they were in the movie, and they have to overcome those preconceived notions that their employers and even colleagues may have about what they can do and what they can accomplish,” Cottle said.
Clemson chemical engineering major Crystal Pee, civil engineering doctoral candidate Shakira Hobbs and Cottle gathered recently to discuss how “Hidden Figures” affected them and how they related to the women’s struggles.
“The movie resonated with me not only as an African-American woman, but as a woman, period,” Cottle said. “The women portrayed in this movie were very relatable. Even though they lived in a time period that was radically different than our own, we can relate to them, and I think that’s what made it so wonderful.”
In the movie, actors Taraji Henson, Janelle Monáe and Octavia Spencer play real characters Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, who, with many other black women, persevered and triumphed in two worlds dominated by people who looked nothing like them: the science, engineering and mathematics professions dominated by men, and the world of white people, which dominated every other aspect of American society.
The story of the “Hidden Figures” women remained largely unknown until the book was published in September 2016 and the movie was released this month.
Pee said she heard about the movie when the actor Taraji Henson posted an announcement on her Instagram page, and she started doing her homework. “I first learned about Katherine Johnson, and I learned she was 97 years old, and I thought, wow, it’s still impactful today,” Pee said.
Increasing diversity and inclusion in the STEM fields got a boost recently with a $3.4 million grant to Clemson from the National Science Foundation.
“Our search committees absolutely are doing a good job of identifying talented women and bringing them to campus,” Sez Atamturktur, associate professor of civil engineering and the leader of the ADVANCE grant, said when the grant was announced. “The problem is the number of women in our applicant pools is very, very low. We’re starting with fewer options. We will strive to match the representation of women in faculty positions to the number of candidates available for those positions in the national pool.”
In the movie, Hobbs noted how Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan faced barriers and diligently overcame them.
“There was a scene (in the movie) where Katherine was given some calculations to verify, and the majority of the page is blacked out,” Hobbs said. The lead engineer, a white man, had redacted much of the information and told Johnson she had to perform her job without it.
“At one point, you’re like, ‘Aw, man, that’s wrong!’ But as the movie progressed, she was able to prevail and show that his calculations were wrong. So although initially there may be some road blocks, if you have hope and you stick with it, you’ll figure it out,” Hobbs said.
In addition to the featured video (above) of Hobbs, Pee and Cottle, there is a full-length version (minimally edited) you can watch here in which the women discuss their personal experiences and insights with greater depth.