Women in Science: no longer 'Hidden Figures'

Long before the STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) were created to encourage girls and young women to enter these fields, a few of them were already there as the “hidden figures.”

As Margot Lee Shetterly wrote in 2016 in her acclaimed book “Hidden Figures,” followed by a movie of the same name, there was a small group of black women — outstanding mathematicians — who worked at Langley Research Center, the precursor to NASA, and were crucial to the success of the space race, to Sputnick and to Silicon Valley.

In the 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor, both civil rights advocates, realized we needed to beef up our military by building top-of-the-line aircraft. Encouraged by A. Philip Randolph, leader of the largest black labor union in the country, and a close friend of the Roosevelts, black mathematicians, physicists and scientists began to be employed at Langley.

Since there were several excellent black universities in the south, especially in Virginia and in Washington, D.C. (think Howard University and Spelman College, for example), recruiting black employees was not that difficult.

Most of the mathematicians, however, were women, and “Hidden Figures” tells their story. The women were called “computers”; the men — one black, the rest white — were called “engineers,” and were, of course, paid more money.

All the women, black and white, had been math or science majors in college, (rare back then when most women majored in the liberal arts), and were experienced elementary or high school math and science teachers before they began work at Langley.

They should have paved the way for others to follow, but they labored in obscurity, and more than half a century later, there still were few women in the sciences. In a New York Times opinion piece, Ellen Ullman writes about her early experiences in computing in the 1980s. She had a boss who said, “’I hate to hire all you girls but you’re [just] too damned smart [to ignore]’.” Sadly, that was the prevailing attitude. A few women were hired, albeit grudgingly.

While I was still in college, majoring in English of course, the principal of the elementary school where my mother taught, asked me to substitute teach during January term and spring vacation. When I taught arithmetic, I would write problems on the blackboard and organize the children into teams. As soon as a child got the correct answer, I’d erase it, and the next child would run up to the board to do the next problem until we had a winning team. The kids loved it.

When I did this for second graders, girls and boys showed equal enthusiasm, but when I used the game for fifth graders, the boys were eager as ever, but the girls were not as enthusiastic. In fact, a few preferred to remain in their seats and not participate at all.

Fortunately, things have changed. We now have the STEM programs in schools and colleges, and a concentrated effort to recruit women into these fields.

Maryland has roughly 20,000 open jobs in cyber security. As Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC, says, “the need to prepare more women for those jobs isn’t just a matter of diversity; it’s a matter of simple math.”

Sadly, the number of young women entering these fields is still small compared to young men. Thus, the need for female mentors is strong. Jan, my cousin by marriage, who is my age, was encouraged by a female junior high school teacher to love science, and then another female science teacher in high school encouraged her to major in physics and chemistry in college — where she met my cousin, who became an engineer.

She was hired for her first job by a graduate of her same university, but later was passed over for promotions by men with lower performance scores. But after taking time off to bear children, Jan reentered the workforce and got a great job as a chemist at Merck, from which she eventually retired.

Yes, there was Grace Hopper, who led the team that invented the computer language COBOL. And Dr. Cornelia Bargmann, an MIT graduate, who headed the neuroscience laboratory at Rockefeller University. And Stephanie Kwolek, a DuPont chemist who invented Kevlar (used in bullet-proof vests). And Katherine McCormick, the second woman to graduate from MIT (in 1904); she gave money to MIT to build the first women’s dormitory — in the 1960s.

Here in Baltimore, Carol Greider, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, shared a Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009. Finally, we have Christine Legarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, and Janet Yellen, head of the Federal Reserve. And this spring, astronaut Peggy Whitson, 54, set a record for time in space — 534 days.

So, yes, women in math and science, computers and engineering are no longer hidden. But many more still need to come out of the shadows.

Lynne Agress, who teaches in the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins, is president of BWB-Business Writing At Its Best Inc. and author of "The Feminine Irony" and "Working With Words in Business and Legal Writing." Her email is lynneagress@aol.com.

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