Women Crusaders in Science & Technology

Swapna Narayanan

As we celebrate yet another feat of space exploration and science, and as the social media is agog over the women who made it happen, my mind only wonders at how these women must have done it. 

I once read somewhere that when you see a butterfly, do remember the tough phases it had to go through before it struggled and fought its way out of the cocoon and emerged free.

All women whom you see as butterflies today, have fought their own battles and removed their roadblocks, before stepping out as independent, strong and determined women. And we must honour that journey while paving way for them to achieve more laurels and see the pinnacle of success. 

Back in 2017, the movie Hidden Figures had beautifully showcased that however intelligent, educated and competent a woman is, she has to always a cross a few additional steps to get into the main line and grab a seat at the table. 

The movie is about three mathematicians – Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) – who work in NASA in various capacities. While Katherine is a mathematician who estimates trajectories of the space mission, Dorothy is an (acting) supervisor of the data team and Mary is part of the heat shield team. 

Each of these women are brainy, intelligent, confident and ambitious! A combination that was a tad ahead of its times then. 

The story is set in early 60s, when seeing the Russians move ahead with their space mission, NASA was under tremendous pressure to send American astronauts into space. Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) is heading a Space Task Group and Katherine gets assigned to this team due to her analytical geometry skills. The only black woman in the team, she is of course not welcomed and clearly cold shouldered. Slowly Katherine makes her way in. She gains Al’s respect when she solves a complex mathematical equation that he had given the team to solve. While she gets more entrenched into the system, she is still not allowed to sign on her reports. She prepares the reports and her immediate supervisor signs them. 

Elementary needs like a tea/coffee kettle or a bathroom that is available for all men with such an ease, is difficult for Katherine to access. She walks a few blocks away each time she has to go to the bathroom! 

Meanwhile, Dorothy manages her team of data analysts but is not given a formal rank as a Supervisor owing to being a woman of colour. NASA has embarked on a mission to automate and has purchased an IBM computer which none of its engineers are able to start. Dorothy is able to start the machine. Realising that the computers will replace their roles, she goes a step ahead and learns the computer language Fortran on her own, and starts training her entire team of 30 people.  

Mary, encouraged by her Polish supervisor, applies for the position of NASA Engineer only to be told that she cannot apply for the same till she gets some additional certificates. And these certification courses are available in the nearby school, which is unfortunately an All-White school. Mary, against her husband’s wishes, decides to file a petition in the court and request access to the school to get her certification courses. 

The movie goes on and touches upon such deep aspects of the division of the then society in terms of race, colour and sex. Certain scenes stay in your heart forever, when Al breaks the board ‘Coloured Bathroom’, or when Dorothy is stopped from entering the all whites section in the Library, or when Mary is torn between the constant tussle of ‘should she?’ or ‘shouldn’t she?’. 

By the end of the movie, Katherine finds a footing and gets invited in to the meetings, and is able to single-handedly solve a major crisis that comes up after the launch that could have potentially jeopardised the whole mission, Dorothy moves with her 30 coworkers into the programming section and becomes its Head, and Mary wins her petition and is granted admission in the evening college and eventually becomes an engineer at NASA. 

Based on a true story, the movie resonates. 

And it comes back to me now, when I am sure the women scientists of our country have had their own unique battles, and have fought them in their own ways, while working ahead with their goals, dreams and aspirations. 

Kudos to these women and wishing them many more accolades.     


*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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