Friday, 17 March 2017

Hidden Figures Film Screening & Essay

Tinted Lens: Hidden Figures Screening

The screening at Chapter Arts Centre ( will be followed by an expert panel discussion and audience debate to explore some of the themes raised by this film. The panel will explore philosophical, neuroscience and the social and cultural perspectives on concrete mathematics, cosmic dust, complex material behaviour and being a woman in science.

This is the incredible untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, an achievement that restored the nation's confidence and turned around the Space Race. The visionary African American trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
Dir: Theodore Melfi With: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle MonĂ¡e, Kevin Costner,

A collaboration between Chapter Arts Centre, the British Film Institute (Film hub Wales) and Cardiff University, this programme of events curated by Dr Katie Featherstone will explore contemporary social and cultural developments and the ideas found within new-release, cult and classic film, with a focus on understandings of the mind, human behaviour, memory, the life-course, and ageing. 

The film screening starts at 6pm Tuesday the 21st March, Chapter Arts Centre. Followed by the free panel discussion and debate.

Speakers are:
Haley Gomez, School of Physics and Astronomy, will draw on your work on understand the formation and evolution of cosmic dust and will also discuss being a woman working in Astronomy (as a member of Women in SET).
Matthew Lettington, School of Mathematics, is a number theorist, and will talk about concrete mathematics, which played a key role in obtaining the calculations required to get John Glenn into space and back safely and the challenge of accurately computing the continuous discretely.
Hayley Wyatt is a researcher within the School of Engineering and previously worked within the School of Maths. She will talk about her research is in the field of medical engineering, including the design of surgical devices and implants, and complex material behaviour and being a woman in science. 

Tinted Lens : Hidden Figures Essay
Prof Haley Gomez

The film Hidden Figures really resonated with me as a female professor of physics where women are very much still the minority.   And this film managed to be both heartwarming and horrifying at the same time, to see and experience what these brilliant, talented, hard-working women had to go through to make their voices heard is really hard to watch.
We often hear people say “maths and science are not about people, not about gender or race” but the truth is that maths and science are things that are done by people.  And people are flawed, people have biases, people make judgments.   This film is probably one of the first mainstream films that raises the question on whether racism and sexism can harm or halt scientific progress by keeping the best ideas in the room hidden. 

First I want to comment on the idea of highly skilled women in the workplace being used as "computers", that was a role they were allowed to do.  The history and contribution of women working as computers in science is becoming more and more discussed and known about.  When I started my undergraduate degree, the textbooks were full of men who did great science. Nowadays, they are beginning to include the pioneering female computers who in fact made the original breakthroughs but were often not discussed about in “history of science” stories.  We are hearing more and more about these women and their contributions. In astronomy, the Harvard Observatory was the first to hire women to compute.  This began around the 1880s [1], and make no mistake, this was not a strategy for furthering equal opportunities or for advancing the rights of women, it was purely because women were cheaper than men and there was just too much data for the observatory director to get through. These computers notated images of the cosmos and catalogued stars. Their role was to enable the men around them to do the research, but the women themselves made amazing discoveries.  Annie Jump Cannon designed the classification scheme we still use today to put stars in different categories, and Henrietta Leavitt discovered a fundamental relationship between a pulsating star’s brightness and its distance, allowing scientists to measure the distance to the nearest galaxy outside our Milky Way.  This was the crucial piece of evidence that allowed later scientists to discover that the universe is expanding.  These women measured the universe and still did not get equal pay or respect, though some were invited to join astronomical societies and take up roles in universities.

80 years later, and we see the NASA computers in this film. These computers are slightly different as they were there to perform mathematical calculations before electronic computers were standard. Here, the film also deals with the additional (horrifying) barriers faced by these three women due to racism and segregation.  But both sets of computers, albeit separated in time, were founded on similar principles: women were cheaper and so useful for the menial tasks, but they were not really allowed (or encouraged) to step outside this role.   We should note that jobs at the time were few and far between for skilled women, female mathematicians and engineers had fewer career options than men with the same degrees so an opportunity to work at NASA was (as seen in this film) very much taken up by these women.  These jobs were given on the basis of less equal rights compared to their contemporaries just because of how they look, and some preconceived notion that women could not possibly have anything to contribute to “real research” despite the fact they were already doing it every day.

The amazing thing about this film, is that these issues are played out in many of the scenes in a way that makes us both cheer for the female protagonists and want NASA to realize that all they have to do to solve their engineering, mathematical, computational problems, they just need to open their eyes to see these hidden figures right in front of them.      We see it when the female computers were not given formal recognition of their work (the scene where Paul gets angry that Katherine co-signs a document that she has written). The denied promotion for Dorothy despite already doing the job and doing it brilliantly.  The shock at having Katherine step into the room where the “important men” discuss the science, the door that is shut closed on her even though her work is absolutely crucial to the success of this operation.  All of these demonstrate the increasing hostile environment women experience when they step outside the limits placed on them by others. 

One of my biggest surprises whilst watching this film is how much the examples of leadership in science presented in this movie resonated with me.   First we see a great example of leadership in Dorothy who led the computers. Her leadership allowed her team to do brilliant work, but she went further than that.  She saw the direction technology was moving with the introduction of the IBM machine, and she made the strategic decision to get her hands dirty and learn FORTRAN so that she could bring her team with her into the next technological age.  This teaches us that leaders and managers should be embedded in their teams, doing work on the front line.

Next is Al Harrison’s character. He starts off completely unaware of the hostile workplace and experiences and difficulties these women run into every step of the way. His character is an interesting mirror for more privileged colleagues who are absolutely sure that they are not racist, sexist, biased etc., but are simply unaware.  He is not malicious, he is a good leader in fact, but by not paying attention to the social interactions below him (with the point of view that science and maths is not about politics), it is still damaging his team’s progress.  He literally doesn’t understand why NASA is not winning this space race and only by seeing Katherine’s talent (due to her drive and guts), and by her literally shouting at him about the barriers she faces, does he suddenly begin to realise that there are many more ideas and theories and talented staff in his team than he realised, that those breakthrough ideas that are needed to shift paradigms are already there but they are not being heard.  

Here the film shows actually quite a unique view of how science succeeds. In reality science is not about that lone genius that just happens to solve something whilst pondering the universe, but instead science is driven by teams of people working together to solve problems.     The film has a strong statement: that for science to succeed, for humanity to send a person into space, we need a diverse team and a leader willing to bring out those ideas and recognise talent no matter what their personal or social experiences and prejudices are.   And for leaders to open their eyes to the experiences of the minority groups within their team.  A leader that hears the quiet voice in the room whilst everyone else shouts their own thoughts, or sees that the workplace is being hostile and takes steps to support their staff in overcoming those barriers.   Whilst watching the film I thought that this should be shown to all leaders, managers in science-related industries as a lesson in how the best managers should behave.

One of the really powerful things about the film is how the camera shows us the perspective very much centred on these women - how they are viewing their experiences, how they deal with the constant questioning of their abilities.    Watching these women overcome all sorts of sexist and racial barriers is really hard and uncomfortable for all of us to view, even though they deal with it with incredible grace and determination.    It makes us question our own biases, and judgements we make about what we imagine these women can do in the first 10 seconds of seeing them.    Everyone watching the film wants Al to pull down that bathroom sign, we want these women to just be allowed to do their job.    We feel sad that they’re not recognized.  And yet humanity, in the position of white privilege,  did not stand up for women like these when it mattered.

For my final point, the film allows us to discuss and think about the effects of the lack of diversity in science on science itself.  When I started my career as a PhD student in 2001, there wasn’t even a single female member of staff.    Things have changed since then, but in 2013, tonly 6% of maths or physics professors in the UK were female [2].   Only 13% STEM jobs in UK occupied by women [3] even though we’re facing a huge shortfall in the skills needed to meet the needs of employers globally [4].

The film provides potential reasons for this lack of diversity at the top by showing us the everyday overt racist and sexist experiences of the women in this film. Not only are they not treated equally to men or their white female colleagues, they are definitely not on equal footing with other staff and the goals and benchmarks are often moved.     We see examples of the barriers in the film that these women have already had to fight for: fighting for the right to attend night school just to be allowed to learn, unable to get the same access to books from the library, not being allowed to use the bathrooms in the same building.    Noticing that you’re the only woman in the room.  You’re the only one that looks like you in your department, or in your university or company or in your whole field of research.    These things would make anyone question every day whether they really belonged or whether science is worth it.

These women are allowed to join the race but are pushed back 10 miles behind the startling line and yet still expected to get to the end at the same time as their white male counterparts.  And if they don’t? They hear that perhaps they’re not good enough or not dedicated enough to do the job. They are given different starting conditions and moving goalposts.  They have to work harder, do more, be more brilliant to get noticed.   And these women are just the tip of the iceberg, the ones that have broken through the barriers. 

It's tempting for us to think this was an issue that was in the past. Racial segregation is no longer the law in the US, women are allowed to study and work, but the experiences of those brilliant women in Hidden Figures way back in the 60’s still resonates today.     Outright (or subconscious) sexism or racism continues even today and can make it hard for people to think they do belong in a STEM workplace, or science is for them.  Indeed the percentage of women in science has depressingly stayed constant over the past 40 years, and if anything is getting slightly worse, with fewer girls choosing physics.  

All this is compounded by the influence of role models. One can imagine it is difficult for young people to imagine themselves as scientists if they don’t see anyone who looks like them doing science.  We know that even by age 8, girls and other under-represented groups say they can’t do or won’t choose science not because they’re not capable or bright enough, or don’t enjoy it, but because they just don’t see science as something that is for them.   When we look at who was important in history, who are included in textbooks, who are taught about in classrooms, representation in the media.  Those people are overwhelmingly men.   And yet this film shows us very clearly that even where women were important to breakthroughs, even when women changed history (the Harvard and NASA computers as examples), they are hidden from our history books or our science stories.   Shockingly, in the UK there are only 17 black female professors in total [5].   In the US, in the 39 year period up to 2012, more than 22,000 white men were awarded a PhD in physics-related fields compared to 66 black women in the same period [6].    

Films like Hidden Figures show us that not only can black women be brilliant physicists and mathematicians, they have been doing this all this time.  And now that we’re finally celebrating their achievements and their stories we now have new role models.  I don’t know about others in the cinema, but I really felt that these women are like superheroes.  They show young children the diversity of what a scientist, mathematician, engineer, code can be if only we let them.   

And yes these women did this amazing work despite the huge barriers and experiences they had to deal with.  But after watching this film I can’t help but think about all of  the amazing things humanity could have  achieved if those barriers were never there. 

© Stories of Dementia | All rights reserved.
Blog Created by Sophie Nightingale | Original theme by pipdig