Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

Set Women In STEM Free!

I recently saw the movie “Hidden Figures” and was moved both as a human being and a man. Why? Simply by it being the inspiring and uplifting story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, and Mary Jackson; three black unsung female pioneers who succeeded in the male dominated areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics aka STEM in the 1960’s.

I had never heard of any of these three remarkable and very bright women who persevered against all the odds and played a major role in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s mission to get men into space and then to the moon and back. So I did some research (thanks Internet!) and this is what I found:

Katherine G. Johnson was born Katherine Coleman on August 26 (coincidentally Women’s Equality Day), 1918, in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She had a gift for numbers from childhood and counted everything: the steps, the dishes, the stars in the sky. She completed the eighth grade by age 10. As her town didn’t offer classes for African Americans after that her father, Joshua, moved his family 120 miles (192 kilometers) to Institute, West Virginia, where they lived while she attended high school.

Katherine enrolled at West Virginia State College (now West Virginia State University) in Institute, West Virginia. At 18 she graduated with a B.S., Mathematics and French summa cum laude (with highest praise: used to grant the highest of three special honors for grades above the average) and then taught math and French at schools in Virginia and West Virginia. In 1939, she married James Francis Goble, with whom she had three daughters. Her foray into aeronautical field came in 1952 when she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was hiring African-American women to serve as “computers” — women who did the tedious and precise work of measuring and calculating for technological developments. Katherine applied, and the next year she was accepted for a position at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Katherine was not only adept at calculations, she also asked questions because she needed to know why. This curiosity paid off as two weeks later she was transferred from the African-American computing pool to Langley’s flight research division. Katherine achieved this in spite of difficulties at home: Her husband died of a brain tumor in 1956.

After NACA was transformed into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, Katherine was part of the group of people tasked with determining how to get a human into space and back. In 1959 she married a decorated Navy and Army officer James A. Johnson — they have been together for 56 years.

As a computer, Catherine did all the things I saw her do in the movie: Calculate the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and personally recheck the calculations made by the new electronic computers before John Glenn’s (the first American to orbit the Earth) flight aboard Friendship 7. She continued to work at NASA until 1986 where she combined her math talent with electronic computer skills. Her calculations were critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program and the start of the Space Shuttle program.

Katherine has received honorary doctorates, the 1967 NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations team award (for pioneering work in the field of navigation problems supporting the five spacecraft that orbited and mapped the moon in preparation for the Apollo program) and in November 2015 was given the US’s highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, from President Barack H. Obama.

“Everything is physics and math.” — Katharine G. Johnson

Dorothy Vaughan left her position as the math teacher at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, VA, to take what she thought would be a temporary job at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1943, at the height of World War II. Twenty four months after President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 into law which prohibited racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the country’s defense industry, the Laboratory began hiring black women to meet the huge demand for processing aeronautical research data. Urgency and twenty-four hour shifts were the norm as much as the Jim Crow laws which required newly-hired “colored” mathematicians to work separately from their white female counterparts and have separate washrooms. Dorothy Vaughan was assigned to the segregated “West Area Computing” unit, an all-black group of female mathematicians. Over time, these West Area “computers” distinguished themselves with contributions to every area of research at Langley.

The group were originally headed by Margery Hannah and then by Blanche Sponsler who were both white. In 1949, Dorothy Vaughan was promoted to supervisor of the group, making her the NACA’s first black supervisor as well as one of the NACA’s few female supervisors. This promotion provided Dorothy with rare Laboratory-wide visibility, and she collaborated with other well-known white computers like Vera Huckel and Sara Bullock on projects such as compiling a handbook for algebraic methods for calculating machines. Vaughan was a committed advocate for the women she lead and also intervened on behalf of white computers in other groups who deserved promotions or pay raises. Engineers came to value her recommendations as to who were the best women for the assignment and often requested that she personally handle the work for challenging assignments. Dorothy lead West Computing successfully for almost ten years.

In 1958 NACA made the transition to NASA and segregated facilities, including the West Computing office, were abolished. Dorothy and many of the former West Computers joined the new Analysis and Computation Division (ACD), a racially and gender-integrated group on the frontier of electronic computing. She became an expert FORTRAN programmer, and worked on the SCOUT (Solid Controlled Orbital Utility Test) Launch Vehicle Program, one of the nation’s most successful and reliable launch vehicles, used for launching a 385-pound satellite into a 500-mile orbit. Dorothy retired from NASA in 1971. She sought, but never received, another management position at Langley. Dorothy Vaughan died on November 10, 2008.

Mary Winston-Jackson was born on April 9, 1921, in Hampton, Virginia. She attended Hampton’s all-black schools and graduated with high honors from George P. Phenix Training School in 1937. In 1942 she graduated from Hampton Institute with a dual degree in Math and Physical Sciences, and accepted a job as a math teacher at a black school in Calvert County, Maryland. Mary was a bookkeeper in Hampton Institute’s Health Department and an Army secretary at Fort Monroe before getting a job as a research mathematician aka a “human computer” at NACA’s West Area Computing section in 1951. Segregation was still the law so all work facilities had separate restrooms and cafeterias designated “white” or “colored.” In the company cafeteria, whites selected their food choices and sat in the lunch room. Blacks had to make their food requests to a cafeteria attendant and then go back to their desks and eat. Jackson rightly considered being treated less-than equal to her white colleagues as an indignity. After several months of “separate and unequal” treatment, Mary considered resigning. However, a chance encounter with a supervisor, engineer Kazimierz Czarnecki, changed her mind. After hearing her complaints, he invited her to work for him in the 4-foot by 4-foot Supersonic Pressure Tunnel, a 60,000 horsepower wind tunnel capable of blasting models with winds approaching twice the speed of sound. He saw her potential and encouraged her to take engineering classes. This was easier said than done as trainees had to take graduate level math and physics in after-work courses managed by the University of Virginia. These classes were held at then-segregated Hampton High School, however, Mary needed special permission from the City of Hampton to join her white peers in the classroom. Undeterred Mary completed the courses, earned the promotion, and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer. That same year, she co-authored her first report: Effects of Nose Angle and Mach Number on Transition on Cones at Supersonic Speeds.

For almost two decades Mary enjoyed a productive engineering career, authoring or co-authoring a dozen or so research reports, most focused on the behavior of the boundary layer of air around airplanes. In 1979, seeing that the glass ceiling was the norm for the center’s female professionals, she left engineering and took a demotion to become Langley’s Federal Women’s Program Manager. There, she worked hard to impact the hiring and promotion of the next generation of all of NASA’s female mathematicians, engineers and scientists.

Mary retired from Langley in 1985. Among her many honors were an Apollo Group Achievement Award, and being Langley’s Volunteer of the Year in 1976. She served as the chair of one of the center’s annual United Way campaigns, was a Girl Scout troop leader for more than 30 years, and a member of one o the oldest African American technical organization in the United States, the National Technical Association. For Mary Jackson, science and service were two sides of the same coin.

“Sometimes they are not aware of the number of black scientists, and don’t even know of the career opportunities until it is too late.” — Mary Winston-Jackson

I am not ashamed to say that I was close to tears more than a few times while watching the movie. Here were three human beings who were not given their due because they were women and black. Despite this they overcame the testosterone filled NASA environment, racial prejudice and led the way for the women that followed. I was moved by this and by the loss of the talents of girls and women who could have played a critical role in driving technology forward. This is as true for Canada as it is for the United States. According to the Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey (ACS), women comprise 48 per cent of the U.S. workforce but just 24 percent of STEM workers. This means that half as many women are working in STEM jobs as one might expect if gender representation in STEM professions mirrored the overall workforce.

In Canada, Statscan found that women represent the majority of young university graduates, but are still underrepresented in STEM fields — women represented 66% of all non-STEM graduates aged 25 to 34 in 2011. Moreover, the unemployment rate for men aged 25 to 34 with a STEM university degree was 4.7%, compared with 5.5% for those with a non-STEM university degree. For women, it was the opposite: the unemployment rate of women with a STEM university degree was 7.0%, compared with 5.7% among those with a non-STEM degree.

Engineering — Where are the girls and why aren’t they here? Dr. Jenna Carpenter at TEDxMonroe

This has to change! It is not acceptable or economically wise that women are still underrepresented in STEM today despite the contributions of women like Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Johnson Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. It is time to give women their chance in STEM industries and give them their due for their contribution. All of us can be this change; I know I am trying to be.

If you like this post, don’t forget to recommend and share it. Check out more great articles at Code Like A Girl.