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Studying the successes of black women mathematicians opens a window into how we can produce more black STEM grads. It also exposes the bigotry that prevents us from doing so. The new movie Hidden Figures, based on the book of the same title by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). These black women represented dozens if not hundreds of black women “computers” whose largely unrecognized intellectual contributions after World War II gave rise to the U.S. space program.
The lesson? The U.S. will continue to cut off its nose to spite its face by not treating the advancement of black girls’ achievement like the space race.
When victory is in the balance of war, it’s easier to see why a country must reap the talents of all its citizens – including black women – to protect everyone from existential threats. World War II made clear to the military the advantages of recruiting across racial lines. Later, the country’s collective talents led to launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962, along with the science that went along.
Unfortunately, the participation of black women in the sciences has not rocketed.
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In her book, Shetterly cites data showing how far black women have come, but also reminds us of our current struggles. “In 1940, just 2 percent of all black women earned college degrees, and 60 percent of those women became teachers, mostly in public elementary and high schools,” Shetterly writes.
But none of those 1940 college graduates became engineers.
Today, about 24 percent of black women over the age of 25 have earned at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 20 percent of black men in 2014. For the 2012-13 academic year, 65 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned by black students were awarded to black women. However, just 2 percent of black women worked as scientists or engineers in 2010, according the National Science Foundation.
Formerly known as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) appeal to black women mathematicians during the Jim Crow segregation era showed how desperate the country was to strengthen its military and win the space race. It also confirmed that black women do math as well as any other group. When given the opportunity, black women can launch a man into outer space or create war machines.
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Today, we’re not desperate to find cures for diseases, new forms of mass transit, better renewable energy sources and protections for our eroding wetlands. And the country suffers for it.
We’re more interested in raising test scores and “gap closing” than in pushing black and brown minds to solve tangible problems. But we shouldn’t have to go to war to give black and brown youth opportunities to combat what really threatens the U.S.
Education is an issue of national security. And the greatest threat is internal. Although different than Jim Crow segregation, the impact of racism and sexism today on life outcomes is no less strong.
In lieu of starting a war to produce more black women mathematicians, let’s just ask them how it’s done.
“Black women bring unique experiences and insights into their academic work based on many aspects of their identity,” said Sharon Fries-Britt, a University of Maryland professor and researcher who studies high-achieving black students. “We must study them to understand their sources of motivation and their need for expression in science environments.”
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In her examinations of high-achieving black women in physics, Fries-Britt found that as girls they’d had “significant precollege exposure to science.” The black women in Fries-Britt’s studies participated in science competitions, went to science museums and had family members who introduced them to STEM fields.
Clearly, giving kids exposure early and often is key to creating mathematicians and scientists.
Mathematician Monica Jackson, an associate professor of statistics at American University, agrees. “Give them access to resources that can hone their skills,’’ said Jackson. “Nothing outdoes good schools, challenging classes and quality teachers.”
Related: Left behind in science: Why Mississippi’s children lose out on STEM jobs
Like the women of Hidden Figures, high-achieving black students in the sciences are well aware of the stereotypes that brand them incapable. And like their predecessors, many students are driven by these perceptions. Fries-Britt describes this as a “proving process,” an incessant need to do well and prove they are capable.
“She will undoubtedly face many people who believe she is not good enough and can’t do the work,” said Jackson. “However, if she has parents, friends, teachers and mentors that truly support her, she will not believe those naysayers.” Jackson emphasized the importance of a support group.
Black parents are rearing math and science whizzes in spite of negative societal expectations that allow most youth’s math talents to languish in misplaced professions. It’s the expectations of schools, employers and universities that fail us. This is why young black girls must find the joy in math. The world around them is hard enough.
“Help her to see the fun in math. Math is very challenging but there is a beautiful side to it that makes it all worthwhile,” said Jackson, exemplifying the spirit that brought Hidden Figures to the screen.
Black women mathematicians’ mindsets and persistence can’t be measured on a test, but their performances in the face of barriers – that we create – merit resources and opportunity. The greatest gift of Hidden Figures will certainly be awareness. It’s to be hoped that translates into opportunity.
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