University of Washington engineering students can relate to the films' lead characters.
The fact-based movie follows the lives of three black women — Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — who, in a white, male-dominated profession in 1962, helped NASA launch the first successful space missions.
“I loved it. I think it was something that was a long time coming. It showed the value of black women in STEM,” said Tsewone Melaku, a senior in the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering program, about the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
Uloma Okoro, a senior at the University of Washington who is studying electrical engineering, said it’s sometimes hard to find a place where she feels she belongs in her major.
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“As a women of color in engineering, it (the movie) was very powerful to me. They really had to step up and prove more than other people, and they didn’t let anyone get in their way,” Okoro said.
Like the “Hidden Figures” characters, Naomi Zemeadim, a member of UW’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, knows the challenges of black women breaking into the STEM field.
“There is a lot of undermining that happens, but you have to remind yourself that you’re not there to be the perfect student or cater to the egos of the male students but for your own education,” Zemeadim said.
Zemeadim believes the small number of minority women pursuing STEM careers comes from the present lack of representation: Minority girls do not see women like themselves in STEM careers, so they are less likely to pursue a similar career themselves. Minority women make up fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers, according to a 2013 report by the National Science Foundation.
“When you’re a kid, you only see black women in certain roles, and as a kid, you think black people do this so I have to do it, too,” Melaku said.
All three women say that making resources and mentors available could help increase the number of women of color in STEM professions. A 2012 congressional committee report found that having a mentor, especially for minority students, increases students’ willingness to go into STEM.
Since deciding to pursue an engineering career, Okoro has found inspiration and support in various clubs such as Making Connections, Upward Bound, WISE conferences and the National Society of Black Engineers.
“It was very nice for me to get involved in those clubs to find people that looked like me and pursuing STEM careers,” Okoro said.