Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Over the last couple of decades there has been a dedicated push to encourage more women and girls to study science, and yet science still remains a male dominated field. Less than 30% of researchers are women and only 30% of girls choose to study science and maths at university. Some suggest that the traditional biases and gender stereotypes about science are the underlying cause.
When I think about women in science, one of the names to immediately jump into my head is Marie Curie, who won Nobel prizes in both physics and chemistry, and paved the way for research into radioactive decay. There have been plenty of other women too, through the ages, who have made major scientific discoveries or spent their life studying science and mathematics, yet they are not remembered in the same way as their male counterparts. Merit-Ptah and Theano are two women from ancient times who were both physicians. In the Middle Ages, Hildegard of Bingen was a philosopher and botanist. Trotula di Ruggiero was an Italian woman who studied obstetrics and gynaecology during the 11th century. Sophia Brahe was a self-taught astronomer, whose work led to the discovery of the Supernova and the rejection of the geocentric model of the universe. Clearly women have always been very capable of studying science, they have just been denied the opportunity. For far too long, science has been seen as the domain of men.
So why now, with increased opportunities for education and greater efforts to encourage girls to take up science, are the statistics still so low? Is it the way science and maths is being taught at school? When I remember my maths and science lessons, it mostly involved the teacher out the front, talking and writing stuff on the blackboard, and then we did the exercises in the textbook. We did do some experiments in high school science, but nothing that seemed to have any connection with normal life. I haven’t yet found any real reason to mix up chemicals in a test tube or apply the rules of trigonometry. If being a mathematician was just about completing sums and solving equations all day, then for me personally, I couldn’t think of anything more boring.
However, for many women working as computers from World War Two onwards, it was a fascinating and thrilling occupation that contributed to major achievements in space exploration, and this is the focus of Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures. It was also the basis for the film released in 2016. I haven’t seen the film, but the book was a very interesting read. As well as following the lives and careers of a handful of black female computers, it also chronicles the history and development of NASA and the impact of discrimination, racism and segregation on the lives of African Americans.
At first, I found the use of the term “computer” to describe people as being quite weird. We are so used to thinking of computers as machines. At the NACA, the forerunner to NASA, the female computers were like a “piece of living hardware, an appliance that inhaled one set of figures and exhaled another.” Women had been doing this kind of work since the 1930s, obviously to free up the male engineers for the “more serious” work, but as Shetterly notes, ” there was virtually no aspect of twentieth-century defense technology that had not been touched by the hands and minds of female mathematicians.” It was during World War Two though that African American women gifted in mathematics were finally given opportunities to break out of the standard career path of education. At the end of the war, it was hard work and often sheer tenacity that enabled these women to carve out long lasting careers at NASA, proving that “given opportunity and support, a female mind was the analytical equal of its male counterpart.”
One of the most well known of the NASA computers is Katherine Johnson. As a black girl from rural West Virginia, the odds were stacked against her from the start. Born in 1918 she was more likely to not finish high school and die before the age of 35, than to play a critical role in calculating trajectories for some of the early space missions, let alone receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Some of the other women featured in Hidden Figures include Dorothy Vaughan, who successfully re-invented herself from “coloured computer” to computer programmer, and Mary Jackson who went from computer and mathematician to engineer.
These women were confronted by many of the same obstacles that women still battle today – gender stereotypes and combining work with family responsibilities, but one of the biggest barriers was discrimination and segregation. The Langley laboratories, where they worked, was a federal outpost but it was located in Hampton, Virginia. While federal law enabled them to work at the lab, the state laws of Virginia kept them segregated. The black computers worked in a separate building, were restricted to using the “coloured bathrooms” and were required to sit at the appropriately signed table for “coloured computers” in the cafeteria. Of course, no other group had their position in the cafeteria signed and restricted.
In the hierarchy of racial slights, the sign wasn’t unusual or out of the ordinary…This was the kind of garden-variety segregation that over the years blacks had learned to tolerate, if not to accept…But there in the lofty environment of the laboratory, a place that had selected them for their intellectual talents, the sign seemed especially ridiculous and somehow more offensive.”
While some of the white employees treated the African Americans equally and even openly defied the social conventions of the South, many of the locals viewed the employment of the black computers with disgust and as an obvious sign that the end of the world was nigh. The obstinance of the state of Virginia following the Brown vs Board of Education ruling was quite unbelievable, even to the point of defunding and closing schools. Eventually the Langley lab became integrated with the black computers moving from their segregated unit to working side by side with the rest of the white computers and engineers. However despite the vast numbers of black employees working behind the scenes doing the calculations, running the simulations and writing the reports, publicly NASA still presented a white face – white astronauts, rows of white men in Mission Control and white administration.
Ironically, around the same time, black women were being represented on the screen in the futuristic sci fi world of Star Trek. From 1966, television viewers were exposed to a multinational, multiracial, mixed-gendered space crew that also featured a high ranking black woman. And as Shetterly points out, this did not go unnoticed by Martin Luther King Jr, who encouraged the actress concerned, Nichelle Nichols, to see her role as being beyond just female, and beyond just black, but being about equality and about African Americans, especially women, having a place in the future and on the cutting edge of scientific discovery and space exploration. Even in a fictional world, she could still be a role model for the next generation.
The role of screen representation in encouraging girls to engage with science and visualise themselves in the scientific arena is another aspect raised by the UN’s focus on women and girls in science. The Geena Davis Institute reported that of all onscreen characters who had a clearly “identifiable STEM job, only 12 per cent were women” (United Nations, 2021). It seems that the campaign to increase female participation within science has to work on a number of fronts: breaking down stereotypes, highlighting the achievements of active role models, advocating for more equitable screen representation, as well as developing dynamic educational programs that engage girls and showcase science as being a whole lot more than completing boring exercises.
I don’t think I am cut out for a career in science or maths. I was okay at maths and I enjoyed biology and still enjoy learning about the natural world, but I can’t visualise myself in a white lab coat or out in the field and certainly not out in space! When I was growing up I don’t think I could have even identified one woman that I knew who worked in science, apart from teachers, although I did have some friends who went on to study science at university. But I do think that all girls everywhere should have the opportunity to develop to their full potential and pursue their dreams, in whatever field, unhindered by gender stereotypes and social conventions. One woman who did this is Cheryl Praeger, who proved that yes, girls can pass maths, becoming Western Australia’s first female mathematics professor. You can read about her story here.