Google teams with movie Hidden Figures to bust stereotypes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 2:21am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 January, 2017, 2:21am

Google is hoping the stereotype-busting message in the new film Hidden Figures will encourage more women and people of colour to study computer science.

The film, which hit theatres Friday, tells the true story of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) who overcame racism to play critical roles in NASA’s space programme in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s.

It’s adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by the same title. The women in the film are called computers for calculating the math that launch shuttles and rockets into space.

Google is showing Hidden Figures to students across the country and it has created a coding project around the film’s uplifting message to change popular perception about what computer science is and what computer scientists look like.

“It’s such a phenomenal story of these incredible women,” said Lauren Baum who works for Google’s Made with Code programme that teaches basic coding to girls. “When you see it and when you see their energy and their passion and the fact that they actually were the people behind launching John Glenn into space, that is something that students everywhere will really aspire to.”

Women and people of colour are frequently “hidden figures” in the tech industry, too. The film is being released as Silicon Valley faces growing pressure to bring greater diversity to the ranks of those building technology and working for tech companies. Seven out of 10 Google employees are men, the status quo for major Silicon Valley technology companies.

Also largely unrepresented in the tech sector are African Americans and Latinos, particularly in technical and leadership roles.

That’s a pressing problem for Google and the industry at large. Latino and African-American buying power is on the rise and Silicon Valley companies have ambitions that lap the globe. Having women and underrepresented minorities brainstorming and building, not just using, tech products is quickly becoming a business imperative.

Gender and racial stereotypes often deter women and people of colour from studying computer science and from pursuing careers in the tech industry, Google says.

One of the problems: Popular perception that coding is the province of white nerdy men. Google has worked with Hollywood to change how computer science is portrayed on television and in film. The Internet giant has also funded research into the structural and social barriers that keep underrepresented students from studying computer science.

Using a basic coding programme introduced Friday, students can create personalised statements of equality inspired by Hidden Figures such as “genius has no race” and “I believe in equality.”

In partnership with AMC movie theatres and local school districts, Google is hosting viewing parties in Austin, Texas, Atlanta, Georgia, Boston and New York over the next couple of weeks. At the parties, students can watch and discuss the film and try their hand at coding.

Even before the film opened, Google began showing it to young people. The Internet giant sponsored a San Francisco Film Society screening at the Castro Theatre for 1,400 including 400 students from Black Girls Code and Hack the Hood. After the screening, Spencer, NASA engineer Tracy Drain and director Theodore Melfi discussed the importance of diversity in computer science.

At Google’s Atlanta office, Monae and Pharrell Williams, one of the film’s producers, addressed 50 students from historically black colleges and universities. Google has also hosted screenings for students and employees in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

At the recent screening of Hidden Figures in San Francisco, Baum said she witnessed firsthand how the on-screen message resonated with young people.

“You could just see their eyes lighting up just seeing someone who looks like them on the screen, someone they have never heard of doing something that they have heard of: John Glenn’s space mission,” she said.