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‘Hidden Figures’ author addresses gender gap in STEM fields

Margot Lee Shetterly is the author of the book “Hidden Figures.” Credit: Courtesy of The Lavin Agency

The author who helped publicize the story of Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who helped launch John Glenn into space, spoke at Ohio State to discuss the ways society can provide opportunities for women in traditionally male-dominated occupations.

On Tuesday night, OSU hosted a panel discussion with Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book “Hidden Figures” that inspired the Oscar-nominated film. “(un)Hidden Figures: A Conversation to Inspire Cultural Change” addressed ways of creating environments that enable women to contribute to male-dominated industries, specifically within the STEM fields.

The panel also featured Todd Corley, chief diversity and inclusion officer for OhioHealth; Rudy Buchheit, professor and associate dean for academic affairs and administration in the College of Engineering; Wendy Smooth, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies; and Mary Juhas, associate vice president for gender initiatives in OSU’s STEMM program, which stands for science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

Shetterly said the story of Johnson chronicled in “Hidden Figures” is reflective of the potential women have to succeed in a variety of careers, despite the limitations they might face.

“I really think this story and the message for younger people is one of imagination and being able to put yourself in a position that perhaps you didn’t imagine it possible before, and looking to the past to do that,” Shetterly said.

Likewise, Corley said the story is particularly relevant to younger readers, as social norms and stereotypes that discourage women from entering the STEM fields must be broken down at a young age.

“As a society, we’ve got to help our women and our young boys start to encourage one another to push through things, especially our boys making sure women don’t get locked into those stereotypes early on,” Corley said.

The panelists also commented on the role of men in creating inclusive spaces where diversity is valued. Buchheit said men in historically male-dominated industries must actively recruit and welcome women for cultural change to occur.

“If you are sitting at the table, it really begins with being aware that your presence at that table is a privilege and it is your obligation to extend that privilege, use that privilege to get more people sitting around the table,” Buchheit said.

Although Smooth said the recruitment of women into the STEM fields is essential, it must be coupled with accommodations for women in typically male-occupied environments.

“When we invite people in, it requires not only that we just open the door, but we’ve got to change the way that we function once the door is open,” Smooth said.

Buchheit said individuals must become aware of their implicit biases and hold each other accountable for their speech and actions in order to work towards closing the gender gap and creating equity in STEM fields.

“If we don’t do the things that change the culture and the climate, all we’re doing by bringing in diversity is we’re creating disaffection among our population,” Buchheit said.

While the panelists said they believe younger generations are more willing to openly discuss and confront gender inequality, Shetterly said we must continue sharing stories from the past and present to grow from our history.

“I think we have to keep telling the stories and if anybody out there is waiting for someone else to tell the story, it’s never going to get told, like, it’s your job to do it,” Shetterly said. “There are a lot of people in these fields who are doing this work and the more we tell their stories, the more we reflect what is happening and the more we influence what might happen.”

One comment

  1. Thank you for sharing! Interesting!

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