Johnson died Monday at 101.
I knew about her accomplishments far before the movie “Hidden Figures” was released because I’d started researching historical black women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — for my Instagram page, @blackgirlsinstem.
I was floored when I stumbled upon her story. A black woman was an instrumental part of our space race and moon missions! As a young black female aerospace engineer, I was in complete awe. It was hard to conceptualize, considering she made such an indelible mark on the space industry at the height of the civil rights movement. I could hardly begin to imagine the struggles she faced that weren’t detailed in her brief NASA bio.
Then, I was struck with another feeling: anger. Why on Earth had I not heard of her before? The space race was one of the only sections of my high school history class on which I didn’t fall asleep (Sorry, Dr. Rogers). I wrote countless papers about key figures in the United States’ race to the moon. None of the research even hinted at the fact that black women were instrumental to our country’s success. I can’t imagine what that would have been like: 16-year-old, impressionable, curious and space-obsessed Naia finding out that black women had something to do with getting Americans on the moon.
As of 2016, women of color earn the smallest share of STEM degrees, with black women averaging around 8.7 percent of total STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded. As of 2015, black women made up only 1.6 percent of the United States’ science and engineering workforce. Data trends generated by the National Science Foundation show that the percentage of black women earning degrees in engineering has been consistently under 2 percent and has decreased since 1996.
Fortunately, the number of black women earning degrees in other areas of STEM has increased. As a black woman who has been working in the engineering field since I was 18 years old, these figures do not surprise me. I am certain that the problem is not a lack of interest in engineering among black girls, but a lack of exposure and an inability for the industry to retain black female talent due to work environments that lack diversity.
This is a huge reason for me taking the lessons learned from “Hidden Figures” and making it my mission to do as much STEM outreach as my schedule will allow. I also have sought female mentors who have helped me navigate this industry by sharing their experiences. I am forever grateful to them because — without their advocacy, support and guidance — I would not have been afforded some of the opportunities I have today.
I also remain part of various clubs dedicated to the development of black engineers and technology experts, including the National Society of Black Engineers, Tech Sassy Girlz, Vision of Flight and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program. The organizations exposed me to others who looked like me in the field, developed me professionally and academically, and have been incredible support systems even now as I pursue my PhD in aerospace engineering. These are the organizations that ensure that the legacies of icons like Katherine Johnson live on.
It is also heartening that because of the amazing work of Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book on which the movie is based, and the “Hidden Figures” movie crew, 16-year-old black girls with their eyes on the stars — like I was back in middle and high school — will know that women who looked like them accomplished incredible things in the space industry, and that they can, too.
Shetterly’s book went into such great detail about the women’s backgrounds and their work at NASA. The women of “Hidden Figures” were part of the West Area Computing group at NASA, a segregated group of black women who were called human computers. They were the center’s mathematicians and would now be called computer scientists. They performed calculations for a variety of projects. I’d like to share some of the key lessons, and passages, from the book.
It’s okay to trailblaze
“But the job at the aeronautical laboratory was something new, something so unusual it hadn’t yet entered the collective dreams.”
“Not everyone could take the long hours and high stakes of working at Langley, but most of the women in West Computing felt that if they didn’t stand up to the pressure, they’d forfeit their opportunity and maybe opportunity for the women who would come after them.”
The women of that era knew that pursuing their dreams was an endeavor bigger than themselves. They had to make a collective decision to be trailblazers, to be the first. But by doing so, they made sure they wouldn’t be the “only” for too long because they knew that paving the path meant reaching back and bringing others with you. Sometimes, a job is going to require that of you. And it is very intimidating. But there’s power in that, as well. You never know who could be trailing behind you.
Confidence is key
“Possessed of an inner confidence that attributed no shortcoming either to her race or to her gender, Dorothy welcomed the chance to prove herself in a competitive arena.”
Dorothy Vaughan, one of the Hidden Figures, had a confidence that gave her the ability to see past the things that made her different in her workplace, despite the fact that her colleagues couldn’t. It takes a lot of confidence to take up space that is not meant for you. This is much easier said than done, but I always try to remember that, because of who I am and what I stand for, the world is always going to try to count me out. The least I could do is show up for myself by not counting myself out.
Stand by your numbers
“Mary Jackson stood by her numbers.”
“But having the independence of mind and the strength of personality to defend your work in front of the most incisive aeronautical minds in the world — that’s what got you noticed.”
Standing by your numbers is something we saw Mary Jackson and Johnson do in the movie. I struggle with impostor syndrome a lot, but I feel that what I deal with pales in comparison to their feelings of impostor syndrome when racial stereotyping was rampant and vicious. To be able to stand by your numbers in the face of that is quite a feat. It was reassurance for me that if I’m ever going to advance in this industry, I’m going to have to trust my abilities and be my best advocate.
Take your seat at the table
“To move up, she had to get as close as she could to the room where the ideas were being created.”
“Their path to advancement might look less like a straight line and more like some of the pressure distributions and orbits they plotted, but they were determined to take a seat at the table.”
Love thy sis
“Mary and the other black employees at Langley tended to the new recruits as carefully and lovingly as if they were a garden.”
The most beautiful line in the book.
They were the first, but they made sure they weren’t the last. Our goal should always be to reach back and transfer knowledge for the sake of our civilization’s advancement. That is the true spirit of space exploration, and Johnson, Jackson and Vaughn were three women who embodied it at every turn.
You really can’t underestimate the power of representation. Rest in perfect peace and rest in power, Katherine Johnson.