Last Friday, 600 girls sat rapt at a premiere screening of the movie “Hidden Figures”. Organised by Women in Real Estate (WIRE), dressed in a rainbow of different coloured uniforms, the girls came from 17 public and private schools from Nairobi and neighbouring counties.
The movie is based on the life story of three African American women mathematicians Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson in the early sixties as the US raced against Russia to put a “man” in space. Known literally as the “black human computers” in an age before computers as we know them today, the three women simultaneously crossed three red-lines of gender, race and profession to become NASA legends at a time of legalised racism. Their story has tremendous relevance for Kenya today.
As a country, we are not doing enough to invest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for girls and boys. Studies show 80 per cent of third-year primary school students are unable to read or do basic mathematics. Girls face greater obstacles and these challenges violate our constitutional promise of gender equality.
Too many parents still believe that science should be reserved for boys or that women STEM professionals are poor prospects for marriage. Too many teachers discourage girls from taking the “hard sciences”. Lacking the confidence and self-assurance to contribute, too many girls turn their backs on science-based careers. As a result, women still only represent 3.2 per cent of Kenya’s registered engineers today.
In this context, the post-movie dialogue was transformative. The girls got to engage many of Kenya’s own “hidden figures”. Women like microbiologist Dr Marianne Mureithi, dentist Dr Joyce Gitangu, forensic scientist Sophie Mukwama-Gitonga, biochemist Dr Joy Kiano, software developer Mbithe Nzomo, architect/urban planner Mugure Njendu and data analyst Purity Kinyami-Ngondi. More publicly familiar STEM leaders such as biologist Dr Paula Kahumbu, architect Emma Miloyo and astronomist Susan Murabana joined Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu to encourage the girls to see careers in this field.
The story of Hidden Figures is ultimately that of confidence over self-doubt and practical resistance to exclusion and the abuse of power. There are other lessons for us. White male astronaut John Glenn received countless awards for his achievement as the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.
It would take three decades for a black single mother, Katherine Johnson to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom for putting him there. How many other women remain still hidden by the shadows cast by scientific, development and commercial male leaders?
Another powerful wake up moment comes when “race-neutral” NASA Space team leader Al Harrison is shocked by the fact that his “human computer” Katherine Johnson is forced to run across the base to the “black” toilets because she cannot use the “white ones”.
Leadership is not always present to the full impact of dysfunctional administration. Like Katherine, we have a responsibility to call them into action.
There are lessons also for citizens passionate for change that can be learned from engineer Mary Jackson’s husband.
While radicalised by the killings of black Americans, he doesn’t immediately see his wife’s persistence to graduate from an all-white college as a practical action against racism. Sometimes the struggle for human dignity and justice doesn’t need placards and public marches.
The obstacles before girls studying mathematics also blocks the rapid advancement of Kenya as an industrial economy underpinned by sound science. As artificial intelligence rapidly replaces human intelligence this has to be a concern for us. Drones, self-driving cars, robot soccer or robotic surgery may seem far from us today but be present to the fact that every repetitive thought or action we have today can be replaced by a simple algorithm and automated. The race to the moon exposed acute social divisions in North America in the 1960s. Today, the prospect of growing our economy rests on how we can remove the obstacles of poverty, gender and geography. If we invest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and internalise a culture of non-discrimination, then maybe, those girls who watched Hidden Figures last Friday might become the backbone for a future industrial economy and an inclusive society.
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