Most black women were probably not aware that Katherine G Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan ever existed. I certainly wasn’t until earlier this year, when the founder of the Black British Academics network sent me a link to these amazing black women in science. Now that their story has been told in an Oscar-nominated film, could Hidden Figures encourage more black women to pursue a career in science?
I posed this question to a group of black female A-level students, undergraduate medics and recent PhD science graduates – some had seen the film and others had read reviews. The responses were effusive: “These ladies were unheard of and they are inspirational role models to us. They are glamorous and pretty but they feature in a film because of their intelligence … They make science exciting, a cool thing to do.”
Indeed, the women in Hidden Figures are role models. And I believe this film would have encouraged me at the start of my career – or even in choosing to study science in the first place. I would have been inspired by seeing successful black female scientists; everyone loves a good story and films resonate with many young people in a way that written stories do not.
I was one of the few female black scientists in the UK when I graduated many years ago; in my field of tissue engineering, no one looked like me. Over the years at conferences, I was the only black female PhD student or postdoctoral researcher in a crowd of thousands of white – and a few Asian – students and academics.
After working on the race equality charter mark projects within the diversity and inclusion team at King’s College London, and speaking to staff and students, I realised that many black female students did not study sciences not because they didn’t want to but because they did not see female scientists from their ethnic background. They didn’t see black women pursuing science as a career, there wasn’t a history they could look to, there weren’t footsteps to follow in.
Hidden Figures is a brilliant retelling of a historical event – making black female scientists visible. However, it is crucial that now we know, we make it relevant and tangible in today’s society. Black female scientists should be role models working to address the severe under-representation in their fields.
The role models must be relevant and tangible. I am currently mentoring black scientists of both sexes at King’s and other universities. Outreach in schools is another important way to influence future scientists; I am fortunate to have been invited back for a second presentation to sixth-form students at Camden School for Girls, where I will be able to share some of my presentations and award-winning scientific publications. It is through schemes like this that more black women can be encouraged into science today – and linking educational resources to this film can play an important part.
We are always searching for more role models, and I am proud to see that at King’s College London there are many initiatives to increase the numbers of black female and male scientists, and most importantly to ensure there are equal opportunities at all levels. The challenge is retaining black scientists at King’s (and no doubt other academic institutions) and promoting them to senior positions such as readers and professors, where applicable.
On 19 April, King’s will be hosting the first Black Minority and Ethnics (BME) conference for Early Career Researchers – “How to stay in Academia!”. As far as I am aware, it is the first conference of its kind to be held in London. Present will be BME female and male academics from various universities – today’s role models. They will share their inspirational journeys with the delegates.
That’s how to create a virtuous circle: the more BME scientists who are in place and are visible, the easier it becomes to encourage more black women and men to embark on a career in the field. I am proud to say that the few black scientists I know are involved in outreach projects. A film like Hidden Figures can help the process, but it is direct interventions that will encourage the next generation to become the scientists of tomorrow.
This article was sourced from http://newsondogs.com