"Hidden Figures," a 2016 movie nominated for Best Picture, is set in the 1960's when sexism and racism was considered normal. The story focuses on a team of African-American women mathematicians who served vital roles in NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) during the early years of the US space program. During this era, people of color were forced to use separate bathrooms (some on the opposite end of the NASA campus), were restricted to riding the back of a bus, and were not permitted into mainstream universities.
Crossing all gender, race, and professional lines, these ladies were often referred to as "human computers." Individually and collectively they embraced their commitment to dream big. They were instrumental in launching astronaut John Glenn into orbit and guaranteeing his safe return. Their commitment and attitude carried over to how they conducted business. Although their business protocol was considered normal business practice, accepting women and specifically women of color in such business environment was not the norm.
Fast forward over 50 years, and many of those attitudes and opinions are still engrained into our social fabric. Society and social norms often tell us what appears to be right. However, it is the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong that keeps one focused and keeps a business on course. Eliminate fake news and alternative facts and rely on your own acquired knowledge.
An exception to this social norm does exist. In the movie, Astronaut John Glenn was touring the facility where the calculations were being made for his launch into space. During his visit, there were two groups: Caucasians and African-Americans. The administrator touring with Glenn attempted to hurry him along in his visit after shaking the hands of the caucasian group.
Glenn chose to ignore her pleas, moved forward and recognized and shook the hands of the African-Americans as well. He knew of their critical importance and contribution to the space flight. Glenn demonstrated that they deserved the same amount of respect. Clearly, individuals with the integrity of John Glenn recognize the contributions of the most talented without bias due to gender, color, ethnicity, religion, or personal preferences.
Vocalist, Songwriter, and Performer Eric Krop recently posted on social media, "Saw Hidden Figures last night. Cried lots. Wonderful movie. One of the things that made me the most upset was that I wasn't taught this story in school. What an incredible and important story. Even thinking that my parents were born around the time that society was like that; it is very humbling and eye opening to see that we are nowhere near the progress we are told we are at."
Such an observation begs the question of "when did traditional education begin to ignore such important events?" Is it an oversight or an intentional omission?
Historically, women and people of color have not had the same opportunities for academic achievement as caucasian men. Integration and co-ed colleges have certainly been instrumental in increasing opportunities, however, taking into consideration how females and minorities learn still lags. Technology appears as gender and race-free bias, but those developing technological programs may not be. Software and technology is still built on a male-dominance, IBM traditional workforce.
Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant and Author, studied research that indicated a female student's passion for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) began to slow during early adolescence. Prior to age 10-12, there was no distinct difference between male and female in attitude or achievement with a STEM curriculum. As a preteen, girls appeared to become more sensitive to gender identity and social expectations to behave in a certain way. The research found that girls as a preteen or early teen that was still interested in STEM was viewed by their peers are as a "geek" or "whiz." They began to wrestle with being an achiever vs. being cool. Educators, the research showed, also subtly steered girls toward Art, History, and English, sending the unspoken message that Math and Science was for boys.
In response to Gilbert's findings, David Nguyen, PhD, Education Consultant and College Lecturer, indicated that equally important is for educators and society to train boys that it is acceptable, and encouraged, for girls do well and become leaders in STEM. This cultural shift begins with more exposure in school through mentoring and modeling using examples such as those told in "Hidden Figures."
When considering social and environmental factors, the 2015 For Women in Science Fellowship Panel agreed that "something as small as getting directors to cast more women in STEM roles on television and on movies would have a great impact." A movie like "Hidden Figures" could be quite powerful in not only identifying the organic roots of social bias, but also how one's own self-esteem conquers social norms.
This same bias can be applied to most any group, be it race, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental disabilities, religion, LGBTQ, or colloquially based on where one lives. Educators, parents, mentors, and leaders must recognize what is at hand. Addressing bias, prejudice, labels, and non-traditional conformity can be hard. Ignoring such proves even harder.
As NASA Mission Specialist Karl Zielinski told Mary Jackson in "Hidden Figures, "A person with an engineer's mind should be an engineer. You can't be a computer the rest of your life."
Let's start with ourselves. Let's accept people for their talents and contributions and not base it on what we "think or feel" they should do.
bart is a nationally known, sought-after motivational speaker, author, blogger, personal coach, trainer, entrepreneur, and major advocate of the theatre community.
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