For the second consecutive week, a movie about women excelling at math topped North American box-office reports. Hidden Figures is about far more than algebraic equations, of course. It’s based on the inspiring, heretofore little-known story of three brilliant women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson—who worked at NASA during the Space Race of the early ’60s; their work contributed to John Glenn becoming the first American to orbit the Earth. The fact they were African American meant they not only confronted entrenched sexism but also virulent racism and segregation. Their heart-warming victories despite unconscionable obstacles are destined to resonate, and uplift, at the very moment hard-won civil and equality rights in the U.S. are in peril.
One particularly welcome aspect of the movie is the lack of wonder expressed over women being as nimble with numbers as men—or more so. Early on, Katherine’s parents are told their daughter, then seven or eight, has a genius for algebra and should be accelerated into a (segregated) high school. They agree, expressing no doubt she shouldn’t be primed to excel.
The movie also provides an opportunity to muse on why it is, more than 50 years after these women displayed their merit to the space program, that women and math are still presented as incompatible within the wider culture. We need look no further than Canadian politics, where the “math is difficult and not for girls” trope won’t go away. Last year, Maryam Monsef, then minister of democratic institutions, famously held up a piece of paper in the House of Commons, a ransom note of sorts, with the complex formula used to determines voter proportionality. It appeared intended to intimidate: “Electoral reform, especially proportional representation, is really complicated—let’s not go there,” being the takeaway message.
Seeing Monsef, now minister of the status of women, belittle a mathematic equation is an odd optic at a time that women now constitute more than half those enrolled in universities*, yet are still woefully underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, courses. There’s also the concerning fact that women’s participation in the field hasn’t improved much in 30 years in terms of jobs or pay inequity. Certainly a growing number of role models exist: Canada’s minister of science, Kirsty Duncan, is herself an accomplished scientist.
So why is it the subject remains ripe for regular dust-ups? During a 2015 Alberta leader’s debate, Conservative Jim Prentice was pilloried for saying, “I know math is difficult,” a remark that appeared aimed at NDP Leader Rachel Notley, who shrugged it off. Even so, it was viewed as a turning point in an election won by Notley’s government. More recently, there was backlash to a Twitter debate between Conservative MP Michelle Rempel and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi over residential taxes. Nenshi suggested Rempel “didn’t understand what was going on”: “Apparently, math is challenging, but hopefully, she’ll figure that out.” Rempel, who holds a degree in economics, denounced the comment as “sexist.”
Yet suggesting that math is challenging for women reflects ignorance more than sexism. Women have contributed to mathematics and science throughout history, overcoming profound prejudice and institutional barriers to do so. This list, which remains segregated into “women mathematicians,” is believed to dates to 350 CE with Hypatia, and includes Émilie du Châtelet, whose kinetic energy theory foreshadowed E=mc2, Sophie Germain, and Ada Lovelace, credited with creating the first computer program (she was also a daughter of Lord Byron). And let’s not forget Mileva Marić, Einstein’s former student and first wife, whose contribution to his early work remains the subject of debate.
The story of Emmy Noether is particularly moving—if not as ripe for movie adaptation. Today the German mathematician and physicist is celebrated for her theorem, proved in 1915 and published in 1918, that unites two conceptual pillars of physics: symmetry in nature and the conservation laws. It has been heralded as a unifying principle for all of physics and on par with the Pythagorean theorem. A Jewish woman, Noether audited courses after being barred from matriculating formally at the University of Erlangen. After acing her final exams, she was granted the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. Even after receiving a Ph.D., she was barred from holding a university position. Finally, she was named “unofficial associate professor” at the University of Göttingen, despite protest from male professors. She lost that job in 1933 after enforcement of Hitler’s law banning “non-Aryans” from university positions. Noether immigrated to the U.S. and took a position at Bryn Mawr and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Weeks after her death in 1935 at age 53, Einstein called Noether “the most significant creative mathematical genius,” with a caveat: “thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” More recently, Noether’s work has been highlighted in the 2010 book Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem, by Dwight E. Neuenschwander and in a 2015 Google doodle.
Yet despite these accomplishments, the 2013 Finkbeiner test, a guide to avoid sexist coverage of female scientists in the media, would be warranted. It clearly wasn’t used in rocket scientist Yvonne Brill’s infamous 2013 New York Times obituary that began with a celebration of her domestic accomplishments: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children.” Brill was also recognized for her landmark work in jet propulsion and her patent on a hydrazine resistojet used to prevent communications satellites from falling out of their orbit. Yet these achievements were secondary to her skill deploying paprika.
In a 2010 interview, Brill, who was born in Winnipeg in 1924 and turned to mathematics and chemistry after being barred from studying engineering at the University of Manitoba, pointed to continuing systemic lack of recognition and awards for women in the field: “In order to get an honour, you have to be nominated,” she said. “It rarely occurs to men to nominate women.” She was alluding to the Matthew Effect, sociologist Robert Merton’s theory that fame in science begets fame; eminent scientists often get more credit than comparatively unknown researchers, Merton pointed out, even for similar work. In a world that marginalizes female scientists, Albert Einstein is a household name; Emmy Noether is not.
Awards make a difference. In 2015, President Obama honoured Katherine Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling the physicist and mathematician “a pioneer who broke barriers of race and gender.” Hollywood also likes to champion proven winners. The huge audiences for Hidden Figures will no doubt create a “Hidden Figures effect,” a flurry of films starring women who excel in STEM fields. Already the movie has inspired conversation about STEM and women; there have been special screenings for girls.
Yet a double standard remains. At one Toronto theatre showing Hidden Figures, the trailers included one for Gifted, an American movie about a single man raising his seven-year-old math prodigy niece. He clashes with his mother—the girl’s grandmother—over the child’s future: he wants her to have a “normal” school life and childhood; his mother, who appears the villain, wants to focus, even perhaps exploit, the girl’s talent. Watching it, you have to wonder if Gifted would have been made with a seven-year-old boy. Thankfully, Katherine Johnson’s parents didn’t have to face such a dilemma some 90 years ago.