Hidden Figures

Tech in Oakland

‘Hidden Figures’: Can film inspire more young black women to embrace science, tech?

4 Feb , 2017  

Original article by Joyce Tsai in The Mercury News

OAKLAND — Kimberly Bryant still recalls how lonely and unwelcome it felt at times to be the only black female face in her college electrical engineering classes at Vanderbilt University in the mid-1980s.

One of her first memories as a freshman was having the head of the engineering department ask her entry-level engineering class which students had already taken calculus. When her hand was the only one that went up, she recalled, “he ignored me, and he just went onto the next question.”

“And that’s the way it was, just this feeling of being invisible all the time and not really being asked,” said Bryant, 50, who went on to found the Oakland-based nonprofit Black Girls Code in 2011, which aims to help girls, ages 7 to 17, pursue computer science, coding, game design and development.

One of the biggest challenges was finding role models who looked like her in her chosen field, she recalled. And it was impossible to find an image of someone like her in a Hollywood film. But with the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures,” released last month, that is finally changing, she said.

“I think we’re seeing that this kind of changes the conversations with girls, who may have not known that the science and tech fields were an option for them before, and they actually now see this as an opportunity,” said Bryant, whose organization has hosted screenings of the film over the past month to young black would-be coders, future tech wizards, scientists and engineers throughout the Bay Area.

The movie tells the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, African-American women working at NASA who served as some of the brains behind John Glenn’s historic orbit of Earth in 1962.

And similar film screenings and forums are being held throughout the country, with high hopes that the film will galvanize interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — also known as STEM — in minority girls and boys.

For instance, a couple of hundred people attended a forum inspired by the film on Thursday night hosted by the National Society of Black Engineers at the IMPACT Hub in Oakland. The attendees got to listen to inspirational stories of African-America women on race and overcoming stereotypes, such as “Hidden Figures” actress Karan Kendrick, as well as Yvonne Cagle, a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force, who worked for NASA, and other local tech leaders, such as Nia Jetter of the Boeing Co. and Toni Vanwinkle at Adobe.

The professional organization is also using the film as part of a national multimedia campaign, called #BlackSTEMLikeMe, which is aimed at encouraging black students and professionals in science, technology, engineering and math to share their stories and passions.

Its goal? To lead the United States in tripling the number of African-American engineering bachelor degree recipients to 10,000 annually by 2025, so that their representation in the field would reach 12 percent, equaling their percentage of the overall U.S. population, said Karl Reid, the executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers.

“There are so many young women that self-restrict themselves, and so seeing this movie hopefully will inspire them to have a belief in that they can make an impact in these fields … so that the ‘hidden figures’ are no longer hidden,” he said.

For Maya Thompson, 20, a junior at Stanford University who is majoring in management sciences and engineering, it’s been a cathartic moment to see the film with other black female engineering students.

“And it was a powerful and emotional experience,” she said. “What’s the craziest thing was how this was all new to us. I know that I was tearing up, and it was powerful to see the shoulders we stand on.”

Within the Silicon Valley high-tech sector specifically, women make up only about 3 to 5 percent of its workforce, and only 1 to 2 percent of its leadership roles, Byrant said. And black women comprise only 1 to 2 percent of its workforce, with even fewer getting promoted to leadership roles. They make up just 3 percent of the bachelor degrees received in computer science, she said.

Tech companies such as Pinterest and Pandora have increased their female workforces and brought more diversity to their ranks. But black women make up only about 1 percent of the workforce at places like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Intel, according to media reports.

Jennifer R. Cohen, site director of SMASH Berkeley, which is a free Summer Math and Science Honors Academy at UC Berkeley offered to underrepresented high school students of color, said her nonprofit has also been hosting screenings of the film, and it’s been inspiring to see young people’s response.

“They were saying we didn’t even know this was a part of history and part of space exploration. This has been a story of national pride, for many black women,” she said.

“Often you think of the balding white man with the pocket protector, that is very nerdy and antisocial, but for most of our students, they don’t look like that. And that’s why this film … really reprograms what it looks like to be STEM.”

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