A female mathematical genius?

'Hidden Figures' - uncovering the truth of women and STEM

Image credit: Hopper Stone. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Hidden Figures, a film depicting the earliest years of American spaceflight, has just burst into cinemas, uncovering the true and unexpected fact that many of the agency's best mathematical and early computing brains were actually women.

The wooden door slams in her face. She’s been there way too many times, but it always hurts the same. She can do the job better than anyone around, but still has to comply with the humiliating segregation laws of early 1960s America. She is Katherine Goble Johnson – a genius mathematician and main character of the Oscar-nominated biopic Hidden Figures. The door slamming in her face is that of a NASA control centre, which is just about to shoot John Glenn into the orbit and for which she doesn’t have the necessary clearance, despite being indispensable to the mission’s success.

Hidden Figures uncovers a little known but intensely moving story (this writer practically felt like crying from start to finish) of a group of female African-American mathematicians employed as ‘human computers’ by the nascent NASA to perform orbital calculations and interpret data from wind tunnel tests and research departments. The character of Goble Johnson, portrayed by Taraji P. Henson, is seconded by mathematician-turned-computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson, likely the first black female aerospace engineer (Janelle Monáe).

These three black women all possess incredibly sharp technical minds and talents, outperforming their male (and white) counterparts over and over again. While Goble Johnson corrects the calculations of a department full of white male engineers, finally enabling NASA to catch up with its rival in the USSR, Vaughan harnesses the opportunity to become the first person to master the programming of NASA’s first IBM computer, cleverly making herself indispensable as technology shifts and human computers become obsolete. Jackson successfully petitions a court to be allowed to take engineering classes at an all-white university, without which she could not switch from computing to engineering.

The story shatters some deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes and exposes the fact that what’s on the surface does not always reflect reality.

These women will handle NASA's first computing machine

These women will run NASA's first IBM machine

Image credit: Hopper Stone. TM & © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Popular opinion has it that maths is supposed to be man’s dominion. Boys are supposed to excel at the subject, not girls. Where does this notion come from? When I was at school, since the first grade, the best performer in my maths class was a girl. Similarly, we see that Goble Johnson’s mathematical aptitude was obvious to everyone from her earliest years.

“There is significant evidence suggesting that gender stereotyping starts to show up as early as age five, through things such as girls toys (dolls, dressing up) and boys toys (cars, building blocks, adventure games),” comments Naomi Climer, former president of the IET and the first woman to hold the position.

“At an unconscious level, girls and boys are absorbing messages about what they’re supposed to be like and - again, often at an unconscious level - parents and teachers are giving them the same messages. It’s a serious issue that makes it harder for boys and girls to pursue their dream or interest if it doesn’t fit with the perceived norm.”

Goble Johnson’s talents were powerful enough, and her parents enlightened enough, to propel her to a career undreamed of before for an African-American woman.

NASA needed brilliant human computers regardless of gender and colour (although it paid black women significantly less). However, the mathematics whizz still had to fight tooth and nail for her opportunity and even harder for recognition.

While early astronauts such as John Glenn and Alan Sheppard enjoyed the status of celebrity and the stereotypical white male NASA engineer became a symbol of resourcefulness and resolve, the African-American Katherine Goble Johnson - while praised by her colleagues (Glenn refused to fly for the first US orbital mission until she verified calculations of the IBM computer) - remained in obscurity.

The Hidden Figures story concludes with a happy end, but a brief look into the biographies of Vaughan and Jackson discloses that despite having torn down the initial walls, they both eventually hit the glass ceiling. Vaughan, Nasa’s first African-American manager, may have headed the all-black West Area Computing Unit, but after the unit’s dismantling, she was never able to get into another managerial role. Lack of skills was likely not the case. The black women working under her guidance at the West Computing Unit sang praises of her abilities and foresight. She always picked the best girl for every job and was eager to assist others to get ahead. Having observed the installation of the first IBM computer at NASA, she retrained her human computers as programmers, protecting them from redundancy.

Jackson, after having progressed into the most senior engineering roles, realised she would never be able to break into managerial positions. She accepted a demotion and spent the remainder of her working life as a manager of the Federal Women’s Program, in the NASA Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, and of the Affirmative Action Program, trying to level the chances for future women to be hired and promoted in STEM roles.

Thanks to the film by Theodore Melfi, the world is finally learning about the contributions of Jackson, Vaughan and especially Goble Johnson – a key figure in many of Nasa’s historical successes. Johnson provided calculations for the first lunar landing, the salvation of Apollo 13 and later for the early Space Shuttle programme.

The mathematician, now 98 years old, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2015 for her contribution to science and advancing the opportunities for African-American women.

Not every hidden figure from the past, however, has been resurrected through the work of researchers, writers and film makers.

Motorcycle racer and engineer Beatrice Shilling fixed the malfunctioning Merlin engine of British Second World War aircraft

Motorcycle racer and engineer Beatrice Shilling fixed malfunctioning engines of WW2 aircraft

The fact is that despite the discouragement and obstacles thrown their way, brilliant women have always been making contributions to the evolution of science, engineering and technology. Similar to the women in Hidden Figures, their achievements have remained largely out of the spotlight.

Bullet-proof material Kevlar, the first dishwasher, windshield wipers, as well as the first compiler (computer program transforming source code into target language) were all invented by women.

A little-known 19th century inventor called Mary Walton helped to clear up the toxic air of the Industrial Revolution-era coal-powered New York. She created a system deflecting emissions into water tanks from where they could be flushed into the sewage system. Later, she built a simple device consisting of a box filled with sand that could absorb the vibrations of rails, thus reducing the noise of passing trains.

The invention caught the attention of the New York City Metropolitan Railroad, which paid Walton $10,000 for the rights.

During the Second World War, a female engineer and daredevil motorcycle racer Beatrice Schilling solved a critical problem hindering the ability of British pilots to chase the Germans.

In 1940, RAF pilots struggled with the Merlin engines of their Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft cutting out when attempting a nosedive. Due to the engine’s design, fuel would flood the engine’s carburettor during the negative g-force manoeuvre, resulting in the stall.

Luftwaffe’s planes didn’t have the problem as they were using fuel injection. As a result, during the Battles of France and Britain, German pilots would be able to easily escape the British pursuit by performing a nosedive, which the RAF fighters couldn’t follow.

Beatrice Shilling, one of the first two women accepted to study engineering at Manchester University, devised a simple gadget restricting the flow of fuel during the manoeuvre. The device, a small metal disc with a hole in the middle installed inside the Merlin engines’ carburettors, would slow the flow of the fuel during negative g-force manoeuvres, preventing the cut-out.

The British pilots loved Miss Shilling and fondly called her invention (in use until the 1943 Merlin engine redesign) the ‘Tilly orifice’.

Beatrice Shilling was one of the very few women allowed to continue her work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment after getting married. However, according to her biographer Jakob Whitfield, she too struggled in the male-dominated environment. Her (reportedly) brusque manners and contempt for bureaucracy led to an uneasy relationship with (male-only) management, Whitfield says.

The inability to navigate through the male-dominated world similarly destroyed the career of a bright female engineer called Eldorado Jones. The American, nicknamed the Iron Woman, was a teacher turned insurance seller turned inventor whose greatest invention was the first aircraft muffler.

Jones’s manufacturing business in Moline, Illinois, where she produced portable irons and collapsible hat-racks (also her inventions), employed only women over the age of 40. She distrusted and disliked men, which likely blocked her path towards wider recognition. After patenting the aircraft muffler in 1923, she hoped to find investors to help her take the business off the ground. She failed. Money ran out eventually and the Iron Woman died a few years later in complete poverty.

Even today, female engineers and technologists frequently struggle to break into male-dominated circles.

“In the workplace, unconscious stereotypes exist that make it hard for female engineers to be hired and even harder to be promoted,” said Climer.

“Companies can do a lot in terms of looking at their processes to make sure that they’re not accidentally discouraging any particular group, such as by advertising all promotions and agreeing clear criteria for the role ahead of seeing the candidates rather than just selecting someone, where unconscious bias tends to dictate that the person selected is likely to be someone similar to the people choosing.”

Today, only nine per cent of engineers in the UK are women, the lowest percentage in Europe. While the vast majority of early NASA’s human computers were female, only 13 per cent of today’s US computer science graduates are women. Since the time when Dorothy Vaughan reigned supreme over NASA’s first IBM machine, computing - through the introduction of computer games - gradually moved into boys’ territory, from which today’s Dorothy's remain largely excluded.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles