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‘Hidden Figures’: Why they still exist today

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Octavia Spencer, center, and Crystal Lee Brown, right, in a scene from "Hidden Figures."

“Hidden Figures” may have not won awards at the Oscars this year, but it’s definitely picked up widespread attention as one of the year’s most thought-provoking movies. Set during the 1960s space race, “Hidden Figures” tells the story of the amazing contributions of three unsung African-American women mathematicians and their game-changing work for NASA. As incredible as the story is, I wish we could say such figures are well represented in technical and tech-focused industries today. But that is far from true.

As we move toward a job economy where technological skills are increasingly favored, if not essential, women still hold only 26 percent of those jobs. In fact, some 60 years after the women of “Hidden Figures” fought male-dominated workplaces and societal norms for deserved recognition, there still remains an incredible amount of work to be done to help young women and the U.S. workforce truly flourish.

The United States has a persistent gender cap in technical fields and it’s time to take action. If we don’t, women will continue to be left behind in the evolving workplace and employers will miss out on the rich diversity of ideas, skills and approaches women bring to their chosen fields. So what can, and more important, should be done?

Validate technical career paths earlier for young girls

Initiatives to promote STEM to high-school-aged girls have grown in recent years, but we need to expose girls to the idea and prospects of technical and industrial careers at much earlier ages. Research shows girls as young as 9 or 10 will begin the process of self-selecting out of technical subjects.

Thanks to a complex mixture of gendered societal barriers including peer group pressure, parental attitudes and their own personal beliefs about what girls should study, girls begin to perform poorly in math and science when they internalize the belief that they lack the skill or aptitude to succeed. By the time they reach high school, the gap has widened and many girls explore career paths that tap into other skill sets, usually those more traditionally associated with femininity and women.

Show that STEM careers benefit society

One way to counteract traditional gender role stereotyping is to show young girls there are many ways to make the world a better place, traditionally a motivating factor in girls’ career choices. They don’t have to be teachers, caregivers and nonprofit professionals to do that; they can also make an impact by being architects, engineers and auto mechanics.

Maggie Whitman
Maggie Whitman

Many technical industries today are showcasing their more altruistic initiatives to do just that; engineers without borders spotlights global engineering support in Third World countries and smart ideas like The Lift Garage aim to help people out of poverty by providing free auto service and car repair; and programs like the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture offer innovative home design for the homeless. The future must in some ways be about reframing STEM careers as beneficial to society.

Change the nature of visible role models

As educators, parents and workers we also must show our girls and young women a more diverse array of technically qualified and workplace-experienced role models. They’re familiar with the idea of women doctors, researchers and lab workers, but less so with industrial career choices. Engineering, construction, welding, electrical and HVAC are all booming career paths, but are almost invisible to girls considering future careers.

We need more industry role models who visit schools and present these less traditional career paths as valid, viable and everyday career options in today’s world. Technical and STEM-oriented summer camps can help too. Rosie’s Girls camp, inspired by Rosie the Riveter, is a partnership between Dunwoody College of Technology and local Girl Scouts troops to give girls a hands on experience with technology, problem solving and leadership skills in a girls-centric environment. 

Experiential, single-gender classes

At Dunwoody we’ve pioneered an approach to technical education that sees our faculty provide both a rigorous academic instruction with immersive, ongoing experience of the tools, techniques and labs that provide experience of real workplaces in multiple industries. This approach is spreading to other schools too, where the goal is simple: prepare all students but especially young women with a working familiarity of the workplace to create comfort and the confidence to begin making real contributions on their first day of employment. At our college, this approach is resulting in 98 percent graduate employment in chosen fields.

Some high schools are also experimenting with opt-in single-gender classes in subjects such as automotive and engineering to encourage girls who are intimidated by male-dominated classrooms and topics. This isn’t a return to the gender-bias of teaching earlier generations, thankfully, but it is one more step in understanding that we need to be more attuned to the societal barriers many girls and young women still face when encountering math, science and more technical STEM topics and career opportunities.

Maggie Whitman is the women’s enrollment coordinator at Dunwoody College of Technology, Minneapolis. She can be contacted at mwhitman@dunwoody.edu.

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