Katherine Johnson spent more than 30 years working for NASA where, among her other achievements, she calculated the flight trajectories that allowed astronaut Alan Shepard to become the first American in space. In 2016, NASA announced a token of appreciation: a building, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility, would be named in her honor. Johnson was 97. Her story was turned into a movie, Hidden Figures—with a screenplay by former NASA intern Allison Schroeder and based on the eponymous book by Margot Lee Shetterly—that stars Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer as three black female mathematicians serving as NASA’s famous “human computers” during an era where women were actively discouraged from pursuing STEM and the organization had segregated bathrooms. The movie reveals how even though STEM fields have been historically dominated by white men, women of all colors have been at the forefront of scientific advancements in spaceflight and other arenas without receiving their due credit. Johnson is one of many such women; others include Rosalind Franklin, a molecular biologist on the team that discovered the double helix structure of DNA, and Maryam Mirzakhani, who in 2014 became the first woman to win the Fields Medal since the prestigious mathematics prize was created in 1936. All have been hidden figures for too long.
Women currently make up half of U.S. workers but less than a quarter of the STEM workforce—which, not incidentally, offers higher earning potential for those women than do non-STEM fields. The issue isn’t competency. According to a study on open source software, code written by female computer programmers is better received by their peers than code written by men, but only in a gender-blind study. This proves women have to fight hidden biases like the persistent cultural narrative that science and tech are masculine fields.
Now there are several new initiatives stepping in to bridge the gender gap in technology and innovation. General Motors recently announced a partnership with the nonprofit Girls Who Code to make technology and mentorship more accessible for girls from underserved communities; GM anticipates that this could create a 200 percent increase in the number of women in computing in the next decade. In addition to exposure, women need—to borrow Laverne Cox’s term—"possibility models" that show them they can pursue careers in STEM. Research suggests the more girls see women kicking butt in STEM jobs on screen, the more they will be encouraged to join them IRL. To accelerate this, the National Academy of Engineering co-sponsored a competition, The Next MacGyver, to find the next great TV pitch with a female engineer as its lead. While we eagerly wait for those shows to get developed, we already have smart female characters on TV who have helped to challenge gender stereotypes by normalizing the presence of women in scientific and technical fields. Click through the slideshow below to see some of the most inspirational—albeit fictional—women in STEM on television. There’s a very good chance that seeing one of them create binary code or excel in robotics will inspire America’s next Katherine Johnson.
The X-Files: Dana Scully, doctor and FBI agent
During the series’ initial run in the late ’90s, Gillian Anderson’s loving portrayal of the highly intelligent and hyper-rational Agent Scully inspired a generation of women to pursue science—a phenomenon known as The Scully Effect. Scully reinterpreted Einstein for her undergraduate thesis, so it’s no surprise that when the powers that be went looking for a hard scientist to make sense of Fox Mulder’s ravings about extraterrestrial activity, she was the first pick. In the revival, Scully has returned to her roots as a medical doctor—she was recruited to the FBI straight out of medical school—at Our Lady of Sorrow Hospital where she treats sick children with rare conditions.