Gen­der and racial equal­ity still have a long way to go

Focus-Science and Technology - - Comment - Robert Matthews is vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor in sci­ence at As­ton Univer­sity, Birm­ing­ham.


Hav­ing been a kid dur­ing the Space Race of the 1960s, I’ve al­ways reck­oned my­self some­thing of a space buff. While still in short trousers I could reel off the names of all the as­tro­nauts and cos­mo­nauts and their achieve­ments. But I must con­fess the story be­hind the hit movie Hid­den

Fig­ures came as a com­plete sur­prise. Was it re­ally pos­si­ble that NASA had used rooms full of peo­ple to work out rocket tra­jec­to­ries and or­bits by hand? And not just any peo­ple, but teams of math­e­mat­i­cally gifted African-Amer­i­can women – at a time when dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of eth­nic­ity and gen­der were ram­pant?

The story of how Kather­ine John­son and her fel­low “col­ored com­put­ers” – as they were known at NASA in the early 1960s – helped Amer­ica win the Space Race is truly in­spir­ing in both hu­man and sci­en­tific terms. Each day, John­son and her col­leagues tack­led math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems of mind-bend­ing com­plex­ity while si­mul­ta­ne­ously deal­ing with rou­tine sex­ism and racism.

Yet de­spite all of the hard­ships they faced, the qual­ity of their work was such that when John Glenn, the first Amer­i­can into or­bit, was given his flight de­tails worked out us­ing an IBM com­puter, he in­sisted on hav­ing them per­son­ally re- cal­cu­lated by John­son – just to be sure.

So how come the story of John­son and her col­leagues has re­mained hid­den for so long? Ac­cord­ing to au­thor Mar­got Lee Shet­terly, au­thor of the epony­mous book on which the movie is based, part of the rea­son is that much of their work was se­cret.

The booster rock­ets that were used to put the first US as­tro­nauts into space were es­sen­tially just mod­i­fied bal­lis­tic mis­siles, which had orig­i­nally been de­signed to lob ther­monu­clear weapons at the Sovi­ets. As such, their range, ac­cel­er­a­tion and other char­ac­ter­is­tics needed to make tra­jec­tory cal­cu­la­tions were clas­si­fied. But as Shet­terly re­searched her book, she found other rea­sons for the role of NASA’s hu­man com­put­ers re­main­ing hid­den – rea­sons that are hard to fathom to­day.

The mere fact that they were fe­male meant their work was largely viewed as just a higher form of ‘chore’ women were sup­pos­edly nat­u­rally good at. Then there was the ef­fect of the racial seg­re­ga­tion in US mil­i­tary and fed­eral in­sti­tu­tions of that era, which even dic­tated who John­son and her col­leagues were al­lowed to sit next to in the work can­teen. With so few be­yond their own cir­cle to talk to, it’s hardly sur­pris­ing their heroic ef­forts re­mained un­sung.

Per­haps most telling of all, how­ever, is the fact that the women them­selves were al­ways very mod­est about their ef­forts. As Shet­terly told BBC

His­tory mag­a­zine in a re­cent in­ter­view, when John­son and her for­mer col­leagues learned their sto­ries would be told in a book and a movie, their re­ac­tions was: “What’s the big deal?”

Yet at the same time, they knew they had never got the ac­co­lades they de­served. This will seem ut­terly para­dox­i­cal – es­pe­cially to those of us known as ‘men’. From the first time we suc­cess­fully use a potty, we males tend to be very keen on mak­ing sure ev­ery­one knows of our achieve­ments. But women… not so much. And no, it’s not just me say­ing that. Re­search shows that women are less likely than men to put them­selves for­ward for pro­mo­tion, of­ten be­cause they think that if they just keep do­ing great work, some­one will surely no­tice even­tu­ally. That’s a big mis­take – and one that ben­e­fits pushy blokes with no qualms about brag­ging to the boss.

In Lean In, her cel­e­brated study of lead­er­ship, Face­book’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Sh­eryl Sand­berg cites this phe­nom­e­non as a key rea­son why women are un­der-rep­re­sented at the top of their pro­fes­sions. Hid­den Fig­ures does a grand job of show­ing the feisti­ness and de­ter­mi­na­tion of John­son and her col­leagues in help­ing Amer­ica win the Space Race. But any­one who thinks women would find it all less of a strug­gle to­day is liv­ing on an­other planet.

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