Hidden Figures is up for Best Picture at the Oscars on Sunday. It has some stiff competition, but I really hope it wins.
If you haven’t seen it, put it on your calendar now. It is one of the most inspiring films I have seen in a long time. I saw it with a friend of mine, also trained as a biologist, during a girls’ getaway in Vegas. (Most people don’t go to Las Vegas to go to the movies, I realize, but seeing this film was at the top of our list, being science nerds and all.)
The movie, based on a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly, follows the true story of three black women mathematicians who worked as human “computers” in a segregated wing of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA; replaced by NASA in 1958). Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is a geometry expert who calculated the trajectories needed to launch John Glenn (Glen Powell) into space; Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is one of the first FORTRAN programmers and the first black supervisor at NACA; and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is an aerospace engineer. These brilliant women of color overcome intense prejudice and doggedly serve their country. They are the unsung heroes of the space race.
The movie compresses a couple of decades into the time around 1962, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. While some scenes aren’t based on real events (e.g. the passionate destruction of a restroom sign by Bob Gilruth, played by Kevin Costner), the film has received praise for its overall historical accuracy.
My friend and I talked all evening about various themes in the film—smart women who who used their intellectual gifts in extraordinary ways, black women struggling to make it in a white man’s world, church-going women dedicated to math and science, working women with husbands and kids. It made us want to dream bigger dreams, to do things of lasting and hopefully eternal significance, to not waste a moment of this precious life God has given us. Several weeks later, those themes are still pressed on my heart.
Unlike the protagonists in the movie, I have grown up in an age where it’s not remarkable to be a woman with an advanced degree. I’m a third-generation PhD (though I’m the only female PhD in the family so far), and I always had supportive parents, teachers, and professors. I was never told I couldn’t succeed at something because I was a girl; instead, I received only encouragement. “Take as many math courses as you can,” my father advised. “It’s good for you.” Like vegetables.
So I did, but I was always aware of feeling...different. When I went to parties in college, I was strongly tempted to lie about my major—what boy would be interested in a girl studying biophysics and math? Too intimidating. Women often respond the same way. “Oh, you’re one of those,” a new mom at the playground said to me last week. By which she meant: smartypants. I could be wrong, but I don’t think men get that reaction nearly as often.
I recently read an eye-opening article in The Atlantic about gender bias regarding intellectual ability. It is well documented that adults generally consider brilliance and genius a masculine trait. A new study by Lin Bian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, found that this stereotype emerges in girls early—around age 6. Before 6, both boys and girls associate brilliance with their own gender. Boys continue this association, but around 6 girls begin to say that boys are smarter—despite (correctly) affirming that girls outperform boys in their classes. One part of the study was especially intriguing:
She offered 160 children a chance to play two new games—one for children “who are really, really smart” and another for those who “try really, really hard”. At the age of 5, girls and boys were equally attracted to both games. But among those aged 6 or older, the girls were less interested than the boys in the game for smart kids (but not the one for hard-working ones). “They’d go from being really enthusiastic to saying: ‘Oh I don’t want to play it, this isn’t a game for me,’” says Bian. And those who had most strongly assimilated the stereotype of male brilliance showed the lowest interest in the smart game. They had already mentally assigned themselves to Hufflepuff instead of Ravenclaw.
I’ll confess the article had me in tears, because it gave voice to my experience (and this is very hard to admit): despite my academic pedigree and professional accomplishments—which are modest compared to many of my colleagues, but are nevertheless rare compared to the general population—I have felt the effects of, and believed, this stereotype for as long as I can remember. Probably since age 6.
Fifty-five years ago Katherine Johnson helped put a man in space. Why are we still struggling with this stereotype now? I don’t know. It’s a complicated issue and there are no magic bullets. I do know, however, that—contrary to the screeds of atheists—faith in Christ ought to bring hope and confidence, not false humility and fear of failure. The Gospel is the great leveler. “There is neither Jew nor Geek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). God created all people in his image, both male and female (Gen 1:27). This doesn’t mean there aren’t significant differences between the sexes (I’m on the more conservative end on this point), but the presence of the image of God in all people means we, the Church, can and should embrace the inherent worth and giftedness of all people—ourselves included. We impoverish the Kingdom when we fail to encourage young people—whatever their sex, color, or class—to do what they are capable of doing. Let’s exercise our own gifts and boisterously encourage others to do the same.
Hidden Figures uncovered some hidden feelings for me, which I’m still processing. I bet I’m not alone. Did you see the film? How did you react? What do you think about the male-brilliance stereotype? Are we guilty of what Michael Gerson has called “the soft bigotry of low expectations"? Does the Church have a role to play in vocational discernment and support of STEM professionals?