Katherine Johnson, a Hidden Figure, a Woman in Technology

By Selena Templeton

I’m super excited about the new movie Hidden Figures.

This is the true story of the female African-American mathematician at NASA who calculated the flight trajectory that enabled an American astronaut to be the first person to orbit the Earth. Do you know her name? Neither did I.

The movie (and book) centers on Katherine Johnson, a physicist and mathematician whose “accuracy in computerized celestial navigation and inspiring leadership at NASA spanned decades and numerous space missions, from the space shuttle program in the '60s all the way to NASA's current Mission to Mars.”

She was born in 1918, a high school freshman at age 10, graduated from college at 18, and in 2015 at the age of 97 finally received a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her contributions to rocket science. She was fortunate to have a father who supported her and wanted to help her succeed with the passion and talent he saw in her, which was a love of math, so he drove her 120 miles from home so she could continue her education. Years later, she also had the support of her husband who uprooted their family so that Katherine could take a job at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ (NACA’s) Langley laboratory.

When most people think of famous scientists or astronauts or anyone in the tech industry, they think of Caucasian men. But when white, young males are the ones staffing the companies and helming the startups, the products and services they create cater to their own experience, needs and perspective. As far as Galen Gruman at InfoWorld is concerned, “one reason nearly every startup seems to be working on mommy-replacement technologies — from Uber to TaskRabbit, from Soylent to Mark Zuckerberg's planned AI household servant — is due to its bias toward professional-class, coddled white and Asian young men.”

 

Take a look at the stats on race in tech

Source for Images: The Verge

 

Not to discount the valuable contributions that men have made, but honestly, where are the women of color in our history books? What’s especially disconcerting is that not only were the first computer programmers primarily women, but this field was actually considered women’s work.

According to Brenda D. Frink, “as late as the 1960s many people perceived computer programming as a natural career choice for savvy young women. Even the trend-spotters at Cosmopolitan Magazine urged their fashionable female readership to consider careers in programming.”

Women were encouraged to become computer programmers because men believed that this job was basically like being a telephone switchboard operator, and they reserved the “difficult” job of hardware development for male workers. But as they realized that writing code was hard, more men got into computer programming. Rather than be perceived as doing “women’s work,” these men attempted to make programming more masculine “through creating professional associations, through erecting educational requirements for programming careers, and through discouraging the hiring of women.”

They also made the hiring process more biased: “With their focus on mathematical puzzle-solving, the [aptitude] tests may have favored men, who were more likely to take math classes in school. More critically, the tests were widely compromised and their answers were available for study through all-male networks such as college fraternities and Elks lodges.

I had no idea that African-American women even worked at NASA back then, and I know I’m not the only one. That’s why it’s so critical that we have a diverse range of role models so that all kids can visualize themselves in this job or that industry, not just Caucasian boys. Role models don’t necessarily have to look like you, but it’s often more inspiring when they do, especially when you’re interested in a field where no one looks like you.

As Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code, says about her entry into computer programming, “I also recall, as I pursued my studies, feeling culturally isolated: few of my classmates looked like me. While we shared similar aspirations and many good times, there’s much to be said for making any challenging journey with people of the same cultural background.”

When Katherine Johnson attended West Virginia State College, her math professor W. W. Schieffelin Claytor (who was the third African American to get a PhD in mathematics) became her mentor. Would she have gone on to a successful career at NASA without a role model at school that she identified with? It’s hard to say, of course, but it probably affected her positively in some way.

The most disturbing thing, perhaps, is that we had great role models such as Katherine Johnson (not to mention other women like Grace Hopper in the ‘40s and Ada Lovelace in the 1800s), but they were silently removed from the American story along the way.

That’s why I’m excited about this film. Hidden Figures puts three brilliant female African-American mathematicians (in the ‘60s, no less) front and center in this movie as well as back on the history pages — where they belong.

Be sure to check out the #FutureKatherineJohnsons page on the Black Girls Code website.

 

 

Do you know of more pioneering women in technology? Let us know!


About Selena Templeton

Selena Templeton is the Column Editor for the Equal Respect column on ITSPmagazine.

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