While stories of hidden women of color in STEM are beginning to come to light, both women and people of color are still underrepresented in STEM fields.
While “Hidden Figures: the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race” by Margot Lee Shetterly remains in the number one position on The New York Times Best Sellers’ Paperback Nonfiction list, students still are not taught about these extraordinary innovators in STEM classes at school. Learn about these hidden women of color in STEM and ask your teachers to expand upon these stories in class.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Tracing its roots back before the time of World War II, the role of the group of human computers at what was known as NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) included compiling and gathering data. This detailed work was reserved for the human computers, which comprised only women, to provide more time to the male engineers who were required to investigate flight research. According to NASA Chief Historian, Dr. Bill Barry, NACA’s need for qualified computers continued to expand, creating a need for the organization to open its doors to women of color.
“Human computers played a critical role in NACA and NASA research from 1935 until the early 1970s. NACA hired the first group of human computers (all women, as was the tradition in that field of work) in 1935 to relieve the burden of data gathering, collation and computation from the increasingly busy engineers working on flight research. This ‘experiment’ worked so well that the human computing workforce was expanded as the NACA grew rapidly in the run-up to World War II. Due to continuing staff shortages during the War, African-American women were recruited for this work starting in 1943.”
While the hidden women of color in STEM arrived nearly a decade after NACA decided to employ female computers, their contributions, as outlined in “Hidden Figures,” were invaluable to the flight and subsequent space programs. As NACA became NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and the needs of the organization shifted, Barry notes that these women not only continued to work after men returned from the war, which was unusual in other industries, but human computers shifted with the changing technological tide and channeled their STEM aptitude to become programmers.
For the Love of Country – and STEM
Similar to the hidden women of color in STEM, today’s young students continue to discover a love of concepts that could lead to extraordinary advancements and breakthroughs. These hidden women of color in STEM who were members of the West Computing group, which comprised only black women, had once been children who loved studying these challenging subjects.