“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream speech, August 28,1963
In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr day, Avis Yates Rivers, CEO of Technology Concepts Group International and lifelong STEM diversity advocate sponsored a powerful event created by #GoBeyond producer, Jennifer Halweil.
It featured a special screening of the movie Hidden Figures at AMC Loews in New York City and two sessions of engaging discussions with a panel of five extraordinary women representing STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) fields. The focus of the moderated conversations was of building more strong female media archetypes and fostering greater diversity in STEM.
Each woman told the story of their own unique journeys with very common threads as well as a connection to the movie’s central theme of perception and inclusion.
The first panel discussion was held at Cooper Union prior to the movie. It was introduced by associate professor of mechanical engineering and STEM Outreach Program director, George J. Delagrammatikas who as part of his remarks, said, “Role models are critical for bringing more diversity to the field.” The second panel discussion was held in the AMC theater following the movie showing.
Movie Theme & Message
Hidden Figures is the untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, a genius mathematician, a woman and an African American, who worked as a human “computer” for NASA at Langley Research Center in the 1960s pre-Civil Rights Act segregated era of Virginia during the heat of the Space Race with the Russians.
Katherine was instrumental in developing the math that didn’t exist at the time for man’s orbital flight outside of the earth’s atmosphere. This occurred just prior to theintroduction of electronic computers and while having to deal with the very real challenges and obstacles of her race and gender.
She so uniquely distinguished herself, that she was the only woman to be moved from the woman’s computing sections (both white and ‘colored’) to the ‘elite’ Space Task Force division containing only white male engineers and mathematicians.
She had the right stuff (a term I apply to her originally coined for only the all white male astronaut pioneers). A combination of brilliance, fierce-curiosity, intellectual-assertiveness, integrity, humility and grace. She said her dad taught her “you are as good as anybody in this town, but you’re no better”.
This blessed mix of qualities and strengths enabled her to overcome the roadblocks and become a major force and pioneer behind the US’s great achievements in space —the flight of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Apollo 11 landing on the moon and the return of Apollo 13.
The other genuine heroines of the film were Dorothy Vaughn, NASA’s first African-American Supervisor and self-taught Fortran expert of the then-new electronic computing group (racially- and gender-integrated); and Mary Jackson who broke down segregation barriers to become NASA’s first female Aerospace engineer.
Now, over 50 years later, the idea of separating groups by race and gender seem archaic, counter-productive and just flat-out ridiculous.
Yet, THIS IS STILL HAPPENING —- maybe not by law but by unconscious bias and deep-rooted societal stereotypes of gender-defined roles and race.
Women are still paid 78.6 cents on the dollar compared to men.
Recent studies find that female college students are four times less likely than men to major in computer science or engineering, even though they test extremely well in math.
More numbers: only 19% of software developers are female, only 5% are in tech leadership roles, and only 3% are African American.
We cannot solve the problems of the future without every person participating—- women, people of color and of course the men.
The Panel Event and Panelists
The numbers just cited should be our call to action as “the fierce urgency of now”and in rejecting “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
An event such as the one held on Monday, exemplifies this powerful call to action by visually highlighting the past achievements of unsung heroines of math, technology and science and then marrying it to a discussion with the stories, observations and insights of five extraordinary women leaders of STEM.
This impactful event was the brain-child of Jennifer Halweil, whose documentary series, #GoBeyond, highlights women from around the world doing groundbreaking and glass-ceiling-shattering science. Beyond the Boundary is a Trailer Teaser for Jenn’s docuseries — breaking all kinds of barriers.
As panel moderator, Jenn kicked off the event by going through some of her trajectory highlights leading to her current passion projects. After spending several years working as an electrical engineer, she turned to brand storytelling— consulting with tech companies on how to get their brand to a wider audience.
Then transitioning to the more artistic side of film making, asking the question,“how do we tell more stories that kind of change the stereotypes of how do we see an engineer?” When she first moved to New York City a casting director said “you’re too pretty to be an engineer; and you should be wearing glasses”. Jenn asks “is this the message we are passing on to young girls?”
As sponsor and host of this incredible event, Avis Yates Rivers has been a longtime champion of women and people of color in technology, in fact Avis is a 2011 White House Champion of Change. She is also an author, technology thought-leader, mentor, and serves on the board of the Women Presidents’ Educational Organization (WPEO), which certifies and supports women-owned businesses.
She discussed the visionary and fulfilling aspects of entrepreneurship, as TCGi is the fifth tech company she has led over the past three decades. She talked about the acceleration of technological innovation in the form of automation and how she is bringing it to corporate procurement as TCGi’s new eProcure software platform was launched last October.
Avis serves on the board of the NCWIT, National Center for Women & Information Technology and is the National Spokesperson for NCWIT’s Sit With MeCampaign, iconized by the red chair (in the picture). Before the panel even began, there was a buzz generated by the “red” chair on stage as attendees asked, “What’s with the red chair?”
That’s the beauty of it — It catches people’s attention as a way of starting a conversation about diversity in STEM that hopefully also captures their imagination and spurs them to action!
Avis said “If women do come into technology cultures, they leave more than 50% of the time” and “until we solve this problem, technology will never be as rich and deep as it can be”.
Avis’s book, Necessary Inclusion: Embracing the Changing Faces of Technology, released in December, talks about her personal journey and the observations and insights regarding the need for the full participation of women and people of color designing technology.
Emily said that her love of the stars and astronomy came from her parents who were avid star-gazers and big fans of the PBS series, Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan. In fact she said her parents almost named her ‘Sagan’.
She told how her parents never used ‘limiting’ language in family discussions in terms of identifying what was suitable for a woman (versus a man). That allowed Emily to believe that all options were available and that science wasn’t just for males, especially a field such as astrophysics. How important is that for young women today?
Dr. Levesque’s enthusiasm for the cosmos radiated from the stage. She is currently researching a potential discovery of a “Quantum” Star which doesn’t ‘burn’ from the typical fusion-reactor core like other stars including our Sun.
Emily believes that there should be more female scientists in the media’s eye—- she asked “Could anyone name a female scientist currently alive?” The only answer I could come up with was Madam Curie, for her work in radioactivity, but clearly was off by 80+ years (1867-1934). And that was Emily’s important point.
Maybe sometime soon, Dr. Emily Levesque will be the answer I give the next time I am asked that question?
Chemical and Biomolecular Engineer Tamara Robertson is the future host of Science Channel’s Mythbusters, well actually, right now she’s vying for that spot as a contestant on “Mythbusters: The Search”, but they would be crazy not to pick her!
Tamara said she grew up In North Carolina spending time with her dad watching Star Trek and building stuff— like engines and houses. She said she would be considered a “tomboy”, although she doesn’t like term because it reinforces the stereotype that certain things are identified only with a man and not a woman.
After a noteworthy stretch in the corporate world doing some amazing work (check out her video bio), in 2015 she decided to pursue Science Communication “because I realized I wanted to inspire the next generation of young girls”.
As an engineer who is also an actress, producer, and host, Tamara is an outspoken champion for diversity in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). She said “It’s ok to look at both areas, you don’t have to either be an engineer, or be an artist, you can be both and they can work well together.”
She especially stresses this message of STEM and the Arts to at-risk youth in volunteer efforts.
Charlie Oliver, a media expert, commented that hers was a reverse-transition relative to some of the other panelists, moving from media into technology (although the two have become irreversibly interconnected).
She spent years in old media, NY advertising and then on to producing sitcoms and dramas for the likes of giants like Norman Lear at some of the top studios like Sony, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Dreamworks . In 2009 she launched Served Fresh Media which provided technology to support marketing and branding.
As her twitter handle profile states, she is an “Unapologetic instigator of provocative discourse”. Charlie’s latest initiative, Tech2025, is a forum to educate the public on the next wave of disruptive and emerging technologies and their impact.
Charlie discussed some her experiences in writer’s room for some of the big names in Hollywood Story-telling , working with mostly male writers (from Harvard) and feeling quite discouraged by the lack of diversity.
Offering a way to change the status-quo, Charlie provided this insight, “We need to start having the ability to be unapologetic about what we want“.
As the movie showed, Katherine Johnson was unapologetic in pursuit of answers and challenging the standard way of doing business. She was a true disruptor. She says in an interview, “The women did what they were told to do. They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”
She began to stand out until eventually she became a leader as the men increasingly relied on her. When she was told that women didn’t participate in the briefings or attend meetings; she asked if there were a law against it. The answer, of course, was no, and so Johnson began to attend briefings.
Tamara, at one point in the discussion commented, that we need to have more woman super-heroes. Well, after watching the movie and learning more about her from interviews, we have found one! Katherine was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in 2015 and a building in Langley named after her in 2016—- Katherine Johnson is a true Super-hero!
Super-hero status goes to Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, as well.
Concluding Questions & Thoughts:
The movie, Hidden Figures, revealed hidden heroines who, through their intelligence, grace and unyielding perseverance, confronted and overcame issues of gender and race. Then we heard from a powerful panel of five extraordinary women leaders of STEM sharing their own experiences and insights concerning gender and race. Appropriately in honor of MLK Jr. day.
The over-riding themes of the evening: identifying, confronting and challenging the stereotypes and media expectations and portrayals related to science, technology, engineering, and math.
Were we moved and inspired, to the extent of a call to action? Is there a fierce urgency of now?
Despite the current culture of instant gratification and 140-character fast communication, why do we remain slow-paced in demanding and initiating more action related to hidden stereotypes?
Are we under the influence of “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism?”
Yes, progress is being made, but is it enough?
Currently, it is estimated that in the United States, there are just over 9.4 millionwomen-owned businesses generating nearly $1.5 trillion in revenues —-up 79% in an 18 year period.
Yet women are still under-represented in leadership positions, as well as fields of technology and science.Today, there are twenty-one women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 4.8%, up from zero in 1996, but down from 24 a year ago.
We could be more accepting of gradual change, if we chose not to consider the path of history — we are nearly 200 years in the future from those beginnings of the early woman’s rights and slavery abolition movements of the 1820s.
Witnessing the progress of the rights of women and people of color zigging and zagging over this time.
In 1865, as Congress debated the amendment to abolish slavery, one of the representatives sarcastically yelled “What’s next? Giving women the right to vote?!” It seemed outrageous at the time at the notion of women having the right to vote.
Five years later, in 1870 the 15th amendment gave black males the right to vote. Women were not included in that amendment because it was believed it would not pass. They had to wait another 50 years for that right.
I believe the beliefs of gender and race still run deep into the DNA of our national identity.
In 2017, I don’t think we can be complacent and merely assume the progress of gradualism. It’s not good enough. We need more panels of strong women advocating change, discussions of identifying biases, and more media portrayals that disrupt stale thinking and the status quo.
We need big films, small films, and all films in between, that highlight hidden fighters, warriors, and disruptors. People who are Super Heroes, that maybe don’t have special super powers like flying or x-ray vision, but still soar to great heights and are visionaries. And they persevere and never give up!
We need all kinds of events and platforms that share perspectives and alter perceptions. And we all need to exhibit the fierce urgency of now.
Because, it’s not just for the benefit of women, or people of color, it’s for the betterment of society and the world at large. But frankly these words can seem abstract and merely hyperbole to draw attention to the issue.
After watching the movie, it’s actually easier to imagine a different outcome to the greatest achievement of mankind and the US in the 20th century. What if Man landing on the Moon by the United States of America in 1969 did not happen or was delayed?
Without Ms. Johnson and the others, a different outcome is a very real possibility.
What are we going to miss out on in the future by not making greater progress on the issue of diversity in technology and science?
What outcomes would be different without necessary mentors or champions or role models?
Katherine Johnson’s college professor acted as a mentor and a champion when there were no other familiar guiding voices at the time to encourage. When she thought she only had two options, becoming a nurse or teacher, he helped her dream bigger and gave her a third option, a math researcher. His advice after she asked “How?”, was “You’ll look til you find it”.
Given the opportunity, her unquenchable desire for answers and humility broke through obstacles and barriers, that were artificially imposed, to contribute to man’s (and woman’s) greatest achievement.
We can no longer allow Race and Gender to be the factors that stop us from our better future.
We have the proof before our very eyes, confirming the studies that state technological design and scientific research without women and people of color are not just inferior, but have detrimental outcomes to society.
It is not hyperbole, it is the reality!
Finally, Avis said two things on Monday that best epitomizes the critical nature of diversity in science and technology and ties to MLK Jr.’s prophetic words,
“Today, every company is a technology company” and “The lack of diversity in STEM is everyone’s problem”.
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…
This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
– Dr. Martin Luther king Jr, letter from Birmingham Jail.
What first step will you take today as part of this necessary call to action?
For more inspiration, please check out Katherine Johnson in her own words in these interviews: