Courtney Makes Things Move

Book Review - Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

February 10, 2020

I love books but there are only a few that strike such a cord as Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly did. As someone who does not read many historical novels this book was sitting on my kindle bookshelf for some time. I usually wait until a book “calls to me,” for me to pick it up and dive into it wholeheartedly. The timing couldn’t be more perfect as I am preparing myself for a role as a front end developer and for the reality that lays ahead of me as a woman of color. With the state of programming being primarily a white-male dominated field, Hidden Figures gave me historical context of how women were handling such blatant prejudices and discrimination in the STEM world 80 years prior.

“And while the black women are the most hidden of the mathematicians who worked at the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and later at NASA, they were not sitting alone in the shadows: the white women who made up the majority of Langley’s computing workforce over the years have hardly been recognized for their contributions to the agency’s long-term success.”

In a previous discussion post I made, I asked the question:

When I hear, “we need more women in tech,” I’m wondering have women always been in STEM but just never got the recognition they deserved hence why we never learn about them? Have they just been verbally demoted to “the girls,” human computers, that have been overshadowed and virtually erased by their male “lead scientists.”

Yes, I still believe we need to encourage more women to pursue tech, but after reading this book I also believe we should be singing the praises of those who are or were in technical fields! This made me want to learn more about women in the workforce in general. I guess to answer my question as Margot put it, “…since the middle of the last decade, mathematicians had meant women.”

This book not only spoke of the accomplishments of these black women but also of the office politics and continuous red tap that is always there. “Their dark skin, their gender, their economic status—none of those were acceptable excuses for not giving the fullest rein to their imaginations and ambitions.” If Hidden Figures taught me anything it’s to dream bigger and keep working hard. There is nothing stopping me but myself and as cliche as that sounds, if I look at my current situation, where I can learn, read, eat, study, and use a public restroom anywhere, some of that red tape has been raised because of the brave African American women before me.

What I learned is that we are still hearing the same narrative of what it’s like to be a woman engineer, like Mary Jackson who “eventually learn[ed], [it] meant being the only black person, or the only woman, or both, at industry conferences for years.” These are the comments and complaints I see on Twitter on a regular…in 2020. Eighty years ago and we are still facing similar non-inclusive circles. There is clearly still a long way to go.

Hidden Figures thankfully came out in 2011 to turn up the volume on this part of history. Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barak Obama in 2015 and then followed the movie in 2016. While for some, like Shetterly, “growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown…” a large majority of people of color are not exposed to these areas of education and opportunity. I now have an opportunity. I can learn these technologies as I wish and I will. Now I just have to continue the fight, the fight against “the enemies within,” who are trying to silence the work of women and to hopefully one day claim that second V!

The Book versus the Movie

Some asked how the movie compares to the book. I’m always a fan of books over movies. I don’t think I’ve seen a film that came close to the enjoyment I had while reading it. The book is more on the historical side starting from NACA and taking us along the early years of Langley’s need for mathematicians as many of the men were off to WWI. Then eventually bringing us to the formation of NASA from NACA during WWII.

The movie starts in 1954 when Langley was now part of NASA and focuses on Katherine Johnson and her contributions to John Glenn’s orbit calculations, helping to make him the first American in orbit. So basically it gives you a very small snippet but not nearly as much fun - in my opinion - as you learn everyone’s story in depth including Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

Written by Courtney Pure. Currently lives and works in Long Island, New York. She builds things with code and makes things move with animation and motion graphics! You should follow her on Twitter