How the Motion Picture Hidden Figures is Inspiring Women to Consider STEM
Hidden Figures is based on three incredible female trailblazers in the world of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics or STEM during the Space Race against Russia led by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the early 1960s.
This film was a breath of fresh air for moviegoers. For one, it brought into the spotlight three strong female characters namely Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, all of whom did not get the recognition they deserved for helping John Glenn become the first astronaut in history to orbit the earth three times. The trio was wonderfully brought to life by talented actresses Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, and while the film was a lighthearted take on their real-life challenges, it nevertheless made people aware of the disparity of males and females in the STEM industry and how we can do something to change that. Pundits are hopeful the film has taken the right step in inspiring women of today to join STEM.
There is a poignant scene in the movie when NASA mission specialist Karl Zielinski poses the question “If you were a white man, would you wish to be an engineer?” to Mary Jackson. The latter answers in a matter-of-fact manner, “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.”
Of course, the hurdles Jackson had to overcome to be an engineer were one of the film’s focal points—and to see her triumph was one of the film’s most heartwarming moments. She aspired to be an engineer and had to fight tooth and nail to gain admission to an all-male educational institution that offers graduate-level courses in math and physics to be qualified for the job, filing a petition with the City of Hampton.
While there are a sufficient number of colleges and universities that offers STEM curriculum for both males and females, there remains to be an imbalance because of the stigma that this area is only for men.
According to ITWorldCanada.com, Statistics Canada reported that at the end of 2015, there was a low percentage of female university graduates aged 24 to 35 with a STEM degree (only 39 per cent), and after graduation, these women are less likely to have a career in the STEM fields than their male counterparts. Men with STEM degrees have lower unemployment rates and enjoy higher wages.
The global figures are not any different. According to a November 2015 report published by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Institute of Statistics, women only account for less than a third of the total number of employees in scientific research and development, pegged at 28.4 per cent.
What is keeping them away?
In Canada, there is certainly no shortage of well-established schools that offer outstanding STEM degrees to both males and females. In fact, in 2015, the University of Toronto had a record number of 30.6 per cent of female first-year students enrolled in the engineering programs. There are even all-girls’ high schools with a STEM focus such as St. Margaret’s School in Victoria, British Columbia and Queen Margaret’s School in Duncan, British Columbia.
However, while there is a substantial rate of students completing STEM degrees, only a few of them will actually go for a STEM career after graduation, and those who do join are likely to leave because of feelings of isolation and difficulty in adopting to a male-dominated environment.
Time for a change
While there are adequate resources for young Canadian women who aspire to have STEM careers, Canada’s Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan deduces that the low number of females who actually establish careers in the STEM field is largely due to the fact that there are rarely any champions to lead the way. By champions she means not enough women in senior leadership positions.
Duncan says that for a recent round of nominations from Canadian universities for the Canada Research Chairs, men gained twice the number of nominations over women.
Duncan is hopeful things will change as she believes “Science opens up a wonderful world.” And as the three amazing “hidden figures” have proven, that wonderful world is within reach, we all just have to work together to achieve it.