June 21, 2017
Themes of lauded film Hidden Figures linger as conversations about gender bias continue, especially in STEM fields.
Sitting in the middle of a Midwest college classroom with books on the desk and pencils sharpened, Diane Snow was unprepared for what happened next on the first day of her introductory chemistry course.
The male professor walked into the room and surveyed students. “There are a couple of women in here,” Snow recalled the man saying. “I should probably just tell you from day one to save you hardship that you might be better off quitting this class and going to find some interest in library science or something where women tend to do better.”
But on that first day of class in 1976, Snow, an undergraduate in life science and biology at the University of Akron in Ohio, was stunned by the professor’s overt bias. “I looked around the room like, ‘Did you just hear that? Did that actually just get said?’”
Snow stood up in the chemistry class and started packing up her things.
“Being the feisty young woman I was, I smashed my book closed really loud and piled all my books up. And in my high heels, I walked down the steps right to the middle, stood in front of the podium, looked at him [the professor] and walked out of the room and slammed the door.”
She had a slight moment of regret, worrying that the professor might have thought she was taking his advice to leave. But ultimately, Snow was proud of herself and later signed up for another chemistry course with a different professor.
Not all women experience such blatant discrimination in the math and science fields. But the problem has a long history, as illustrated in the recent Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, which focused on the true-life stories of three African-American women in the early 1960s.
Besides illuminating the racial inequalities of that civil rights era, Hidden Figures also highlights the gender discrimination that the trio of women endured while working in math, engineering and computer science for NASA during the first U.S. space missions. Even though the blockbuster film is set more than 50 years ago, gender bias persists today in the fields of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.
Molly Weinburgh, director of the Andrews Institute of Mathematics & Science Education at TCU, said the gender inequities presented in Hidden Figures were accurate depictions.
“It never occurred to them that people of color or women could have really good brains,” said Weinburgh, who holds the William L. & Betty F. Adams Chair in Education. “It’s a lesson to all of us to look carefully at the prejudices we’re carrying with us that we may not even know we’re carrying.”
Today, college-educated women represent about 29 percent of the workforce in science and engineering, 25 percent in computer and mathematical sciences and 15 percent in engineering, reports the National Girls Collaborative Project, which encourages girls to pursue the STEM fields.
Snow, a noted advocate for women and girls in science, attributes much of gender inequality to obliviousness. “Most often, people are well-intentioned but simply suffer from unconscious bias,” she said. “In many fields, women have not been a part of the workplace model, so they often do not get envisioned in that role.”
Female influence missing
Senior biology major Leslie Gonzalez is an aspiring physician, and most of her mentors have been men. But she wishes she had a female influence to guide her in a male-dominated field. “I think you would get a more personal perspective, and they’ve gone through more similar situations,” she said.
Even in academic work outside of TCU, Gonzalez said she hasn’t had a strong female influence. During an internship at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, health professionals often came to speak to the interns. None of the speakers were women.
When Gonzalez asked the male coordinator why he didn’t have any female health professionals speak, he told her that women were too hard to come by or they didn’t have the knowledge on the subjects he wanted to present.
Gonzalez said the coordinator’s answer reaffirmed her medical aspirations. “It motivated me to continue pursuing my career, so hopefully one day I can be that person for students to look up to.”
Hidden Figures delves into the micro-aggressive displays of gender bias in the workplace and social situations. For example, the future husband of Katherine Johnson is surprised that she works at NASA. Johnson (the film’s pivotal mathematician who is in her late 90s today) replies that she is as capable in the job as any man.
Scenes from Hidden Figures, the untold story of African-American women working at NASA who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn, an achievement that restored the nation’s confidence, turned around the space race and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines and inspired future generations to dream big.
Hopper Stone; TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
But when Johnson asks to attend critical meetings to plan astronaut John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, permission is denied. The immediate supervisor, Paul Stafford, a statistician, tells her: “There is no protocol for women attending.”
However, when Glenn is in final preparations to make his orbit, he feels uneasy about the calculations for his re-entry to Earth and requests that Johnson, a math prodigy, double-check the numbers — much to the annoyance of her male supervisors and colleagues.
Only when Johnson assures Glenn that the calculations are accurate does the astronaut proceed with the launch. (This incident and others featured in Hidden Figures are revealed in greater detail in the best-selling nonfiction book by the same title.)
Although Johnson is an exceptional mathematician, she gets laid off in favor of her male colleagues after the mission’s success. Later, Johnson is rehired and for many years aids several astronauts, including Glenn, on subsequent missions for NASA.
Snow said there is a perception among many young women that discrimination in the workplace is a gender problem of the past, but conditions are barely better than they were 50 years ago.
Women, for example, earn about 80 percent of what men do, according to the American Association of University Women, an organization promoting equity and education for women and girls. The organization reports that if progress remains at the rate it has since 2001, women will not achieve pay equity until 2152.
“In some ways, the problem of gender equity is even worse today than we imagine,” said Snow, who was a professor of neuroscience at the University of Kentucky before arriving at TCU in August 2016.
“Historically, women were woefully underrepresented in most professions, and that fact was brutally obvious,” said Snow. “Today, there are shining examples of successful women, which gives some younger women the idea that the problem is solved. It is not.”
TCU’s female student population may add to that misperception among young women on campus, Snow said. The student population is around 60 percent female, according to the TCU Fact Book.
Weinburgh is hopeful about the future of women in STEM fields. “What I don’t want to happen is for a woman who is equally qualified and interested not to be allowed to go into those fields and not to make the same amount of money,” she said.
In this regard, Gonzalez hopes her gender won’t come into play when finding jobs. “It’s something that I’ve thought about,” she said. “I try to remain optimistic that my skills and competencies will speak for themselves, and hopefully my gender won’t be an obstacle against my medical aspirations.”
Weinburgh said encouraging curiosity in young students is crucial.
At the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Fort Worth, Marissa Church, a life science teacher, tries to instill an inquisitive attitude through exploration in her high school classes at the all-girls school.
“For me, it’s really bringing back that school is fun,” said Church, who works with Weinburgh through a training program for teachers. “Building that curiosity and working with them to have a little more fun is what I try to do in my classes.”
Church said the traditional method of teaching science, which focuses on standardized tests, can be too monotonous. “It’s not just coming to sit down and taking notes,” she said, “You have to give them something interesting to do. I think that’s where we’re missing the mark.”
Like Church, Gonzalez is trying to show students the fun side of science. For her Chancellor’s Leadership Project, she and another TCU student hosted a STEM day at the Fortress Youth Development Center in Fort Worth. The event, for elementary students, demonstrated science and math through making slime and elephant toothpaste.
“I enjoyed interacting and teaching basic science concepts to the kids, knowing that for many of them it would be their first time participating in a STEM-related activity,” said Gonzalez. “I hope I ignited their interest in [STEM] and provided motivation towards pursuing a higher education.”
At Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, Jane Moore also prepares schoolchildren for careers in STEM fields through programs such as Expanding Horizons for middle school girls. The 19-year-old program brings in professional women in STEM fields to lead workshops. (Recently, TCU computer science students helped Moore revamp the program’s registration portal on its website.)
Moore, professor of mathematics at Texas Wesleyan University, has taught math for 52 years. As an undergraduate student, her professors encouraged her to pursue graduate school and then teach, she said. “There was no real encouragement to pursue a career using math.”
If Moore had been more aware of her options, she said she might have pursued a career as an engineer, like Mary Jackson does in Hidden Figures.
“It’s important that we encourage our young women, and we as women need to continue to encourage them,” said Moore. “We need to not forget when we move up, we need to work to encourage and educate and excite them about what we’re doing and what they can be doing.”
Although Hidden Figures has ignited the modern-day conversation about gender bias in science and math, Snow said the journey to equality is still long. “It’s better, but not much,” she said. “We’re not anywhere near the advancement we should be.”