Hidden Figures: pre-screening talk for International Women’s Day 2017 (part one)

Hidden Figures is a film highlighting the important role played in the 1960s (and subsequently) by African American women mathematicians in NASA’s mission to put human beings in space. In celebration of International Women’s Day 2017, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Leicester put on a special showing of the film preceded by two short talks. One of the speakers was Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics, Emma Bunce, who spoke about her work in astronomy. I was the other speaker, tasked with addressing the theme of gender equality. Here is the first part of my talk, which I entitled ‘Space Invaders’. In subsequent posts, I will include the rest of the talk.

Space Invaders

The theme of my talk is gender equality, and along the way, I will be mentioning Marie Curie, Space Invaders and Donald Trump. Now, I think it’s safe to say that these three have never featured together in talk before, that this is a world first – perhaps there is a good reason for that, but let’s see how it goes!

Early in 2017, a study was published which showed that from the age of 6 or 7, girls begin to believe that intellectual smartness, genius and brilliance are qualities that boys and men have rather than girls and women.

We need women role models like the ones depicted in the film we are all here to watch this evening to counteract this kind of gender stereotyping which narrows down the world views of girls. For studies show that role models matter – social research shows that girls and women both rely on and benefit from same-gender role models, more so than boys and men do. When girls and women see other girls and women doing stuff that is non-traditional for their gender, this exposure breaks down their own gender stereotypes and gives girls and women more confidence in their skills and aspirations.

When I was a child, I had two role models that inspired me – they showed me how women can have a scientific curiosity about the natural world, and make a difference to our knowledge about it. Mary Anning, the early 19th C. fossil collector from Dorset, was one of my role models. I too collected fossils as a girl – I still have them actually, in a suit case in my loft – and here she was, a girl like me, doing the very same thing ages and ages ago.

My second role model as a child was Marie Curie, the Polish-French Nobel Prize winning physicist and chemist, famous for her work on radioactivity and radium. I vividly remember devouring, over and over again, the Ladybook book on ‘Madame Curie’, and being fascinated by her achievements – and even more intrigued by the fact that she did all that and she had been MARRIED, and she was a MOTHER!

Although I probably couldn’t have articulated it then, it mattered to me that both Mary Anning and Marie Curie were women and were successful in activities that were otherwise dominated by men.

And this is where Space Invaders come into my talk. Not Space Invaders the video game that some of you in the audience might remember. But Space Invaders in the sense of women working in occupations and activities that are otherwise dominated by men. Space Invaders in this sense is a concept developed by a former Leicester colleague, the sociologist Nirmal Puwar, now at Goldsmiths in London. It describes the experiences of women who enter into occupations, organizations and institutions traditionally dominated by white men.

(part two to follow….)