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Hidden Figures: Reflections from a Latina Engineer

By Patricia Valoy, Science and Social Justice Contributing Editor

The movie Hidden Figures was one of the most realistic depictions of mathematicians and engineers I have ever seen. I grew up learning about John Glenn, the first man who orbited the earth, and Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, but it wasn’t until recently that I even knew there were women mathematicians who had a hand in the space race, and it wasn’t until I read the book and saw the film that I even knew they were Black.

Unsurprisingly, the achievements of marginalized individuals and women rarely make it into the history books. It’s a symptom of a male-dominated society that sees intelligence and scientific discovery as predominantly male, while women who show any level of high intellect are still far too often seen as flukes. Although much has changed since Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson worked for NASA at the height of segregation in 1960s Virginia, too much has stayed the same. And as a Latina engineer in 2017, as I read and watched Hidden Figures, I felt a connection to the hardships endured by Black women working in the STEM field back then.

The truth is that I identify with something far beyond the gross and crippling racism and sexism they were experiencing, something akin to the remnants of that era that still hold many of us back today. I could relate to the excitement of the trio as they were tasked with solving complicated problems and assigned to special teams. Their enthusiasm reminded me of similar experiences that I’ve had. Yet their struggle to be seen as more than support staff and to be valued for their brains was also palpable to me. This was one of the main reasons I felt like an outsider in my own field.

A particularly poignant scene in the movie was when Katherine Goble Johnson, a physicist and mathematician whose trajectory calculations led to the successful launch of space navigation and later the moon landing, wrote her name in a report she had authored only to have it rejected by her white male superior because “computers don’t author reports.” But she was insistent, and the more she was asked to remove her name, the more likely she was to include it.

This is a scene that occurs daily in male-dominated fields, and one I am familiar with.

I worked as an engineer for over nine years after a short stint in the construction industry. I became an engineer because I wanted to be mentally challenged and do something that made a difference. The prospect of having a legacy, not as an individual, but in my designs and efforts, appealed to me. Yet, regardless of the vast opportunities that seemed available to me, there were roadblocks at every turn. While I was never explicitly told that I could not author a report because I was a woman or Latina, I was told by superiors that only project managers authored reports. It was evident to me that the vast majority of them were white men, and that by sticking to this protocol they were limiting the success of younger and more diverse staff. It’s a scene that plays out far too often, even after we’ve supposedly demolished institutional barriers for women and people of color.

After graduating from Columbia University with a degree in Civil Engineering in 2008 I had assumed that I would be given all the tools and encouragement I needed to succeed. My first job as a field engineer was on a construction site because I thought this would give me the best practical experience and help me become a better designer. Unfortunately, after experiencing blatant sexism on a daily basis I felt incredibly discouraged from continuing, and I wondered if I was equipped to handle that level of animosity. Most of the harassment was masqueraded as a way to “toughen me up.” I was told that I was too nice and needed to grow a thicker skin, so the constant belittling was excused as some type of morbid encouragement. It was one thing to endure this type of hazing, but after months of being given menial tasks to perform and not being trusted with anything more complicated than doing surveys, I felt bored and decided to leave.

I decided to put my degree to good use and found a job as an entry level engineer. It was one of my most memorable career moments, as I was eager to work and feel useful and intelligent.

Unfortunately, barriers existed everywhere I looked. While it seemed like I had all the tools to succeed on the surface, invisible but nevertheless potent barriers held me back. Instead of being told I could not attend a meeting because I was a woman, I was told that at my level I did not have much to contribute and should listen more. When allowed to attend a meeting, I would be asked to take minutes and pass around the sign-in sheet. So instead of being able to actively participate in meetings, I was wasting my time furiously taking notes. Instead of using my thoughts and helping the team, I was wasting more time editing reports, checking the work of others, and writing up meeting minutes. And when I was asked to write a report, it was on behalf of my superiors, and my name never appeared anywhere on it.

At first this pattern of being consistently underestimated felt like it could simply be part of being a young engineer, but being undervalued becomes a way of life for many women in the field – before we know it, all our ideas become our male bosses’ ideas and they get the credit for it. This trend, also evident in Hidden Figures, has plagued female scientists and mathematicians for generations.

Another blatant example of a woman not being given proper credit for her incredible discovery is that of Rosalind Franklin, a British biophysicist. During her research using x-ray to observe molecules she observed and photographed the double-helix structure of DNA. Her profound discovery was used by her male colleagues, Francis Crick and James Warton, who not only published their work without giving full credit to Rosalind Franklin, but also went on to win a Nobel Prize. To this day, it alarms me that she was not rewarded and thanked for her important contributions to the advancement of science.

Bronx-born Esther Lederberg had a similar fate. As a microbiologist at the University of Wisconsin, she created a way to replicate bacterial colonies in petri dishes that is still used today. Her groundbreaking work resulted in rapid advancements in the study of antibiotic resistance, yet she was never given credit for it. Instead, her husband and lab partner, Joshua Lederberg, along with two male colleagues, George Beadle and Edward Tatum, were awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Her contributions were entirely dismissed.

Some women, like Jocelyn Bell Burnell, are still fighting the good fight for women in science. In 1967, while she was a graduate student in radio astronomy at Cambridge University she discovered that supernovas, giant stars that had exploded, didn’t just disappear into nothing but instead became small pulsating stars. She analyzed over three miles of papers printed from a telescope that she helped build, undoubtedly putting hundreds of hours into her research and discovery. Abominably, when it was time to reward this incredible find, the Nobel prize in Physics was given to her supervisor, Martin Ryle.

Fortunately, Burnell remains fiercely protective of the work of women researchers and works tirelessly to promote their advancement and success.

Stark inequality for women in the sciences is something that continues to this day. Studies show that female scientists are still not rising to the higher echelons of academic success. During their junior years as professionals, women are often not recognized for their contributions and this negligence leads to them being overlooked for big research projects, or offered jobs as professors and department chairs.

Having experienced dismissal, lack of support, and more than my fair share of microagressions, I know that things have not changed as much as we may want to believe they have. I also know that now is the perfect time to keep fighting.

Hidden Figures helped us see just how critical it is for us to support all scientific talent. The loss of progress and innovation that results from misogyny and racism has lasting effects and serves no one. Research shows that girls lose interest in science and math by the early age of 15. By losing talent at such a young age we risk missing out on so much. Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to nurture young talent, innovation and creativity that can propel us toward a more inclusive and progressive future.

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