The media is currently abuzz with the compelling story of Hidden Figures, a book by Margot Lee Shetterly that became an Oscar-nominated movie. It’s a brilliant, stunning narrative for young girls dreaming about their future! The author is from Hampton, Virginia, not far from the NASA research complex at Langley, the setting for this true story. After overhearing her father’s conversations about what went on behind the scenes during the 1950s, Shetterly is motivated to find out more. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she uncovers a compelling narrative that inspires a whole new generation of young girls.
As a black female herself, Shetterly could identify with the struggles of these women mathematicians, called “human computers,” who blazed a trail of historic achievement, including being among the first to understand the intricacies of operating NASA’s computers. Shetterly’s authentic narrative helps us appreciate why these women were “extraordinary” on so many levels. Despite difficult and compromising conditions in an era of racial and gender bias, these women endured and excelled. They remained dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. They showed unflappable determination in proving the value of their skills. They served with unwavering dignity to advance scientific advancement. They made an indelible impact on the success of U.S. missions in space. They bucked the odds, proving that black females could soar.
Why does this matter? For starters, studies indicate that women continue to be historically under-represented in STEM fields. Even today, stereotypes and gender bias persists. To combat this pervasive trend, girls need to learn about women who have succeeded in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They need authentic role models. They need to know that females, especially minority women, can and should dream about pursuing STEM careers.
As an educator, mother, and grandmother, I’m grateful for Shetterly’s powerful story of undaunted courage. Ask your kids to imagine how they might feel when forced to sit in the back of a bus or use separate bathrooms. Ask your kids to imagine being rejected from a neighborhood school because of the color of their skin. That was once a harsh reality for many in this country, people who faced humiliating discrimination all around them. But despite this discrimination, so many men and women defied the norms and set new standards. Many of them, like the main characters in this book and movie, became unsung heroes.
Today, our society is making modest progress in increasing the number of female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, but it remains a challenge to overcome preconceived notions about what women might achieve. Be sure your kids know about how these remarkable women changed the course of history. Genuine “break-the-mold” scenarios like these can help young kids open their eyes to see all the possibilities, especially when stories go beyond “what is” and lead to “what can be.”