Hidden Figures: Rocket science and smashing STEM industry stereotypes

Hidden Figures: Rocket science and smashing STEM industry stereotypes

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After much anticipation, Theodore Melfi’s award-winning ‘Hidden Figures’ recently launched in the UK. The film portrays the true story of three African American women who were at the core of one of NASA’s most pivotal operations in history – sending their first astronaut to space.

Acting as human “computers”, these female pioneers used their talents and mathematical abilities to solve complex equations that ensured the success of major space missions.

Their persistence, intelligence and incredible accuracy helped John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and others successfully orbit Earth.

It serves as a truly inspiring example of women, men and machine working together to make ground-breaking achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

But what does this mean for the next generation of rocket scientists?

Hollywood is now rightfully bringing these women to the public’s attention, but it is no secret that the industry is still short of female role models.

Latest research indicates that only 21 per cent of STEM jobs are currently being filled by women.  And when we look to university figures it’s unsurprising. Just 15 per cent of today’s Engineering graduates are female. The figures are 19 per cent for Computer Studies and 38 per cent for Maths.

While organisations like The Stemettes, techUK and The WISE campaign have some great initiatives in place to increase the uptake of STEM subjects amongst girls, it is critical to understand where barriers still exist so we can tackle them early on.

STEM perceptions

This month, a new study by Accenture set out to explore exactly that, questioning more than 8,500 young people, parents and teachers about some of their perceptions and attitudes towards STEM subjects and careers.

Most notably, the research found evidence of gender stereotyping and bias around STEM subjects. In fact, almost a third (32 per cent) of the young people surveyed think that more boys choose STEM subjects than girls because they match ‘male’ careers or jobs.

The perception that STEM subjects are for boys only was identified as the primary reason that teachers believe few girls take up these subjects at school.

Furthermore, over half of parents (51 per cent) and (43 per cent) of teachers agreed that students lack understanding about career options related to STEM.

The survey also revealed a disparity between girls’ and boys’ perceptions of STEM subjects, with girls more likely to view them as ‘academic’ and ‘boring’.

The findings also point to a significant dip in girls’ enjoyment of traditional STEM subjects such as Mathematics and Computer Science as they enter secondary school.

Among the 7-11 age group, 50 per cent of girls describe these subjects as fun and enjoyable, but this drops to 31 per cent and 36 per cent respectively in the 11-14 age group.

If negative perceptions and gender biases are pushing women out of STEM then we must find a way to change this and open their eyes to what a career or a person who works in STEM looks like beyond the stereotypes.

Landing on the moon

The research was launched as Accenture and Stemettes hosted their annual events across the UK, designed to inspire the girls with the sheer number of opportunities available to them if they embrace an education in STEM.

Over 2,000 girls aged 11-13 participated in coding sessions, virtual reality competitions, forensic outreach workshops and more. They also heard from some of the women that are making a splash in the UK’s STEM talent pool, including the inspiring Sheila Kanani, education, outreach & diversity officer at the Royal Astronomical Society.

The feedback we received from attendees is truly encouraging, but I’m concerned that we need to reach even larger audiences. Educators, parents and business leaders alike must find creative ways to spark and sustain a passion for STEM amongst girls.

Whether it’s working for NASA, lab testing for a new vaccination or coding the next big gaming phenomenon, we must show them that a STEM education can open doors to exciting roles in industries that are changing the world we live in.

As Michelle Obama said, Hidden Figures teaches us that we cannot possibly find the right answer if everyone at the STEM table looks the same, thinks the same and has the same experiences.

Her words ring true for every challenge that we face in science, technology and beyond. It’s in all our interests to ensure that there is diversity amongst those who are coming up with the solutions. History shows us that with that diversity, anything is possible – even landing on the moon.


About the author

Emma is a senior managing director and leads Accenture’s Technology business in the UK and Ireland. Before joining the company 20 years ago, Emma completed a degree in engineering followed by an MSc in electronics from the University of Edinburgh. Much of her career has been spent delivering large scale complex programmes with an engrained technology architecture background. 


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