Inclusion
Black Women and STEM: How Hidden Figures Is Inspiring a New Generation
Gerri Mason Hall
Gerri Mason Hall
President,
Sodexo Stop Hunger Foundation
SVP & Chief Human Resources Officer,
Sodexo North America

On February 26th movie fans all over the world tuned into the 89th Academy Awards ceremony, better known as the Oscars, where the best films of 2016 were honored. La La Land has received a record 14 Oscar nominations, but it’s another film and its story that is gathering much critical acclaim and popular following.

Hidden Figures tells the true and inspiring story of three African American female pioneers –Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — who played an integral role in NASA’s space-race success in the 1960s. Since its release the film has received 25 industry awards and 61 nominations. And earlier this month the film became the highest grossing Best Picture nominated film, beating out La La Land with a box-office total of $119.4 million.

But beyond the critical acclaim and the box office success, Hidden Figures has ignited a national conversation about the importance of African-American women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. And the spotlight is not only timely, but critical to the future of the U.S. workforce and a demand for STEM professionals.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in order to meet the nation’s evolving workforce needs, the U.S. will need to add 1 million more STEM professionals by 2022. In 2015 African American women represented only 3 percent of the computing workforce and 1 percent of the engineering workforce. Clearly, meeting the demand will require encouraging and fostering diversity within STEM industries, especially for African-American women who are underrepresented in these fields, and as Hidden Figures reminds us, have a long history of achievement in STEM fields.

More than a film, Hidden Figures has proven to be a phenomenal platform for inspiring a new generation of black girls and women. From the cast participating on panels related to STEM, to free movie screenings for young black girls hosted by Black Girls Code, to media coverage from the likes of Essence, NPR and Wired, to the spark of positive Twitter chatter around #HiddenFiguresNoMore, the effect has been widespread and exciting.

What are your thoughts on how companies can leverage the popularity of Hidden Figures to attract more African-American women into STEM careers? What needs to be done to break the barriers to entry and foster more inclusive workplace environments in STEM?

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2 comments on “Black Women and STEM: How Hidden Figures Is Inspiring a New Generation

  • Charity Chandler says:

    Setting a foundation and creating interest early in schools is key, and the teachers leading the curriculum are an integral part as well. Are STEM subjects made interesting with experiments and relevant examples? Are youth shown representative leadership in the field? Are teachers using pop culture opportunities like this to springboard the discussion? Access to programming to help support youth interested in the field – technology accessibility, summer camps to encourage further engagement in the field, experiential learning opportunities outside of the classroom – are all keys to drawing more underrepresented youth into the field. Are parents actively engaged in their child’s learning experience, asking questions and encouraging STEM inquiry? The final piece is who is leading the charge from an educational policy standpoint. If STEM diversity is important, is it being encouraged from a leadership and policy perspective? Sadly, I haven’t heard/seen this being the case.

    Much of this holds true in regard to diversity in the STEM workplace and also brings front of mind discussions around equal pay for equal work in very historically male and white dominated fields. Another solid step would be to identify what the barriers to entry are, so that strong plans can be put into place to take down the barriers and open doors.

    Reply
  • This topic is extremely concerning to me. As of, 2012 the latest figures on Black females in earning STEM baccalaureate degrees is only 1 out of 10! This is inclusive of ALL STEM fields, according to the United Department of Education. While Black women currently receive more baccalaureate degrees in general than all other groups in the nation, the degrees they are seeking tend to be far less lucrative (in the social sciences, healthcare, etc.). While this problem has many variables two things stick out to me: high school STEM course access and out-of-the-classroom exposure. In high schools where the student population is predominantly Black and Hispanic there is literally a desert in course offerings that would prepare students to take calculus and other foundation classes to at least enter college with STEM in mind. In fact, more than 40% of high schools even have Algebra II or AP courses in mathematics and science.
    Summer programming and after-school opportunities are extremely critical in how students are exposed interact with these fields. I was so concerned about the lack of opportunities I was seeing that I have developed creative and engineering-based summer programming in an effort to break barriers and give our girls experience.
    I am building partnerships as our programs have taken off! The latest program I’ve developed is up for multiple grants and uses the Hidden Figures movie as the catalyst to explore. If anyone is interested in sharing this program please let me know. I can be emailed at Info@Docere4Parents.com.

    Reply

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