sySTEMic flow is excited to begin a new monthly series. “sySTEMic leaders” is an opportunity for us to pause and honor the countless Black women who’ve made significant contributions in STEM, taking a closer look at the larger connotations of their impact. As the month of June begins, we’re launching with Katherine Johnson, the NASA pioneer whose sheer grit and ability secured the United States’ success in the earliest days of space exploration.
What we see today is that Johnson’s legacy stretches far beyond the parameters of orbital calculations—it’s a story of what diversity can do.
Until the 2017 release of the triumphant Hidden Figures, Katherine Johnson’s story was, unfortunately, somewhat hidden in and of itself. Textbooks were no stranger to the images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin sticking a 6-foot American flag into the moon’s surface, their self-proclaimed “giant leaps for mankind” echoed throughout history lectures for decades to come. But the unsung voices of the people behind NASA’s launches were stark, and the silenced voices of the Black women responsible for many of the calculations even more so.
The film highlights the struggles Johnson and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson faced as Black women operating in the white, male-dominated world of NASA, all while surviving in Jim Crow-era Texas. While the turmoil they endured was real, much of the film is loosely based on the actual story; there was no, for example, “eureka” moment in which Johnson called upon Euler’s method to secure astronauts’ flight path back to Earth.
Minus the film’s dramatizations, though, Johnson’s impact was undeniable.
Katherine Johnson was always a numbers girl. A math phenom from an early age, she was individually selected to be one of three Black students to attend West Virginia State College in 1939. Her ability would eventually lead her to take on a position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, then later consolidating into what we know today to be NASA. The small-town girl from White Sulphur Springs now found herself at the heart of the space race, deriving the math that fueled American ingenuity and, thus, national history.
For Katherine Johnson, the beauty in math lay in the fact that it was, ironically, an inherently black and white concept. Though living in a Jim Crow South meant the deck was always stacked against her, math was different. You can’t discriminate numbers. You can’t question numbers. You’re either right or you’re wrong; that’s what she liked about it.
Johnson had a reputation for being consistently accurate with those numbers. It was said that John Glenn himself, ahead of his 1962 mission, told staffers who were insecure about the newly developed computer technology to “Get the girl” According to Glenn, an OK from Johnson that the computer calculations were correct meant he felt confident enough to give it a go. Glenn’s mission was a success, with Johnson’s calculations securing the geometrical locations of his flight path that would change the course of the United States’ narrative in the great space race against the Soviet Union.
At a time when not man nor machine could get the job done, NASA needed to “get the girl”. Reading a little deeper into this, the implications of Johnson’s work sing praises much greater than a job well done. More than heroism. More than patriotism.
Today, what Johnson did then ultimately confirms the continued fight for what many in STEM are sounding the alarms for; diversity and inclusion.
“Get the girl”, in all its connotations, is not an isolated coincidence. While Johnson was leaps and bounds beyond her peers, the fact that a Black woman was needed to get the job done underscores the prevailing notion of how diversity fuels innovation when it is most pertinent.
If you were to survey any number of leaders within the STEM field, you may be hard pressed to find anyone overtly objecting to increasing diversity; but upon asking them why they believe it is important, you might receive the usual pool of socially-acceptable answers: it is moral, ethical, even congruent with the way the world works today. All of these notions are objectively correct as justifications for diversity, but there’s so much more to the story beyond the scope of that pool of surface-level answers.
Experts and corresponding studies swear by the existence of an almost calculated logic behind why cultivating a diverse team reaps greater rewards. Scientific American’s Kenneth Gibbs gave a topical analysis of this logic back in 2014, revealing that at the heart of progress is the ability to capitalize on problem-solving. Complex problem-solving transcends cognitive ability and aptitude, rather relying on fostering an environment of contrasting voices, new ideas, and differing opinions; by this notion, Gibbs incites how “the diversity of the problem solvers matters more than their individual ability” What stems beyond this point is a kind of domino effect; the less diverse a team, the greater the loss on honing brighter future talent; the smaller the pool of diverse and capable talent, the greater the loss on economic growth and scientific innovation.
Gibbs’ analysis, now more than half a decade old, only scratches the surface of a problem still just as prevalent as it was then. As of 2018, Black people comprise only 8% of the STEM workforce, that figure dwindling to 7% for employed Black people with a bachelor’s degree or higher. What Gibbs and many others continue to call out is, ironically, the conscious and subconscious refusal of STEM professionals to follow science. Creating a diverse environment elicits unparalleled innovation stemming from changing views and difference in perspective. Attention to diversity fuels the depth and breadth of a capable talent pool. Ensuring a capable talent pool marks the path towards economic prosperity and industry breakthrough.
This 1-2-3 punch is not a by-product of progressive ideology. It is not a common concession to changing public tides. It is a proven matter of science.
Diversity is innovation. Diversity is creation. Diversity is the activation of our fullest potential as a collective human species.
Commitment to diversity is only one part of the equation and must then be facilitated through active inclusion. Erika Jefferson, President and Founder of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWISE) and a STEM professional herself, investigated the ins and outs of why Black women occupy leadership positions at disproportionately low rates back in 2019. As of 2017, only 5% of managerial roles within STEM were held by Black men and women combined.
Jefferson echoes many of Gibbs’ sentiments, expressing how continued devotion to inspiring new talent pools is essential to ensuring innovation—this is especially necessary for Black women, a demographic for whom we struggle to retain talent in STEM. Answering as to why retention suffers is difficult, often nuanced in different experiences. Across the board, however, Black women report feeling isolated, under-appreciated, and often without a clear career path in terms of advancement.
Procuring a mutually supportive environment with opportunities for growth is essential for Black women in STEM. Inclusivity functions as a multi-faceted tool for both leveling the playing field while enabling pathways for success. The system is failing Black women in its inability to create an environment they can thrive in; as a result, the industry loses all too many bright and capable minds.
One solution, per Jefferson’s analysis, is simple and quite cyclical in nature. Black women in STEM must be prepared with the necessary tools and training to assume leadership positions. Training black women to lead means securing positions for them to be agents for change. The more Black women we see as leaders, the more role models that upcoming talent have to instill feelings of courage and possibility for them; from there, we can begin to shape a cycle of systemic change in which Black women are properly provided the opportunity to hone their abilities.
It is here that we see the intersection diversity and inclusion. Commitment to diversity broadens the scope of talent pools and is proven to fuel innovation in STEM; simultaneously, fostering greater inclusivity provides the framework by which Black women can assume positions of power, activating a new cyclical, systemic order by which their voices and contributions can be greater heard. Leaders in the STEM industry must do their part to hire with diversity at the forefront not just among their teams, but in leadership positions.
Circling back, the idea of “getting the girl” takes on an entirely new meaning amidst this dialogue. One can only wonder how many other Katherine Johnsons are out there, waiting for their talent to be acknowledged and expertise to be called upon in the fullest sense. STEM is in desperate need of institutional, structural change to properly nurture these minds—both in the breadth of the positions available, and the depth of career advancement when on that track.
Carrying Katherine Johnson’s legacy must mean more than honoring; we must work to build and prepare the next generation of Katherine Johnsons who can do the unthinkable when they are needed most.
This is our mission. Our work at sySTEMic flow seeks to prepare and empower young Black girls to take STEM by storm, not just as bright minds but as capable leaders. We are committed to filling in the gaps and instilling the lessons needed to succeed in today’s world, laying the foundation for a career that will change the course of the industry.
At sySTEMic flow, we’re all about putting in the work to get the girl--the girl that will carry us into the future with confidence, creativity, and courage.
 “Katherine Johnson Biography | NASA,” accessed May 29, 2020, https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography/.  Kenneth Gibbs, “Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters,” Scientific American Blog Network (Scientific American, September 10, 2014), https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/diversity-in-stem-what-it-is-and-why-it-matters/.  Cary Funk and Kim Parker, “Diversity in the STEM Workforce Varies Widely across Jobs,” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, December 31, 2019, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/diversity-in-the-stem-workforce-varies-widely-across-jobs/.  Erika Jefferson, “Where Are the Black Women in STEM Leadership? - Scientific ...,” Scientific American, April 23, 2019, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/where-are-the-black-women-in-stem-leadership/.  Ibid.
Gibbs, Kenneth. “Diversity in STEM: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Scientific American Blog Network. Scientific American, September 10, 2014. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/diversity-in-stem-what-it-is-and-why-it-matters/.
Funk, Cary, and Kim Parker. “Diversity in the STEM Workforce Varies Widely across Jobs.” Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project, December 31, 2019. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/01/09/diversity-in-the-stem-workforce-varies-widely-across-jobs/
“Katherine Johnson Biography | NASA.” Accessed May 29, 2020. https://www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography/.
Jefferson, Erika. “Where Are the Black Women in STEM Leadership? - Scientific ...” Scientific American, April 23, 2019. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/where-are-the-black-women-in-stem-leadership/.