11:22 AM

Hidden Figures author speaks about importance of removing blind spots to tell stories

Best-selling author Margot Lee Shetterly said her book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race is more than just a part of women’s history or African-American history – it’s a story of American history.

Shetterly spoke to a packed auditorium at The Ohio State University on Tuesday to discuss her book and the movie it inspired. The heroes of Hidden Figures are the female African-American engineers and mathematicians who worked at NASA to help put Americans in space and, ultimately, on the moon.

“These women’s lives intersected so many of the signature moments of what we call the American Century, so why has it taken decades for us to tell their story?” Shetterly asked.

Shetterly said segregation is part of the answer. The women in her book worked in a building far removed from the decision-makers at NASA. Additionally, the computing work the women did was not considered as important as the engineering work done by men.

Shetterly argued that was far from accurate.

“They were as necessary to the aeronautical research process as computers are to virtually every aspect of our lives today,” she said.

To recognize these hidden figures required seeing them as women, African-Americans and scientists at the same time. Removing those blind spots is something that continues to be a struggle today, Shetterly said.

Shetterly (center) discusses her book

Wendy Smooth, associate professor in the department of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, joined Shetterly and other experts in a discussion about supporting women and minorities in the fields of mathematics and engineering.

Smooth said the book showed her it is not only important to open the door for women and minorities, but to set them up to succeed.

“It’s one thing to say it’s okay that you’re here. It’s another thing to say we are prepared to have you thrive,” Smooth said.

Shetterly and the panel also discussed the importance of mentors and finding ways to promote the work women are doing in STEM.

“What we need to do is make sure those networks are there, and the self-promotion comes through confidence and from people telling you: You can do it,” said Mary Juhas, associate vice president in the Office of Research.

Monica Cox, chair of the department of engineering education, said Shetterly’s book and the conversation it has started show the importance of storytelling and sharing the stories of hidden figures across campus.

“There are common issues across departments and across disciplines, but people are still trying to solve some of the same problems that existed 60 and 70 years ago,” Cox said. “I’m learning about the importance of storytelling and communicating so people are more aware of these stories.”

Learn more about what Ohio State is doing to support women in STEM