It might sound odd. But some of the most memorable scenes in Hidden Figures don’t revolve around outer space but the ladies loo.
The film, released here last week, tells the unknown story of Nasa’s black female mathematicians. Specifically, three brilliant women: numbers whizz Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Together they played an instrumental role in getting astronaut John Glenn into space, in 1962, and back again.
But in the process these “human computers” worked in a windowless basement, were denied promotion, forced to eat in a segregated canteen, and had to use separate bathrooms.
When Johnson is transferred to an all-white campus, she discovers that there is no “colored” ladies loo, and must run half a mile in high heels just for a pee.
“What do you do for 40 minutes each day?” shouts her boss Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, when she returns one day soaked from the rain.
Last week, I took part in a panel discussion following a screening of the film, which has been nominated for three Oscars, including best picture. In the bar afterwards, my fellow speaker, Gwen Parry-Jones, a director at EDF energy, turned to me with a wry smile.
“That wasn’t so far fetched,” she said. “When I became the first female nuclear reactor physicist back in the Eighties, there wasn’t a ladies loo either. I had to go across to the admin building - that’s where the other women worked.”
It’s easy to laugh. Such tales can sound extraordinary. But it is even more astonishing that Katherine Johnson’s story languished for almost 60 years. It took until 2015 for her to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, aged 97, and until 2016 for Nasa to dedicate a building in her name.
How many other such remarkable women are, even now, denied recognition? How many girls won’t fulfil their potential because there aren’t the role models?
In the film, Mary Jackson’s husband tells her that it’s obvious she can’t be an engineer: she’s black, and a woman. That was in 1958. Meanwhile, a study by the Institution of Engineering and Technology found that just one per cent of parents would encourage their daughter to become an engineer. That was in 2014.
It is often said that you can’t be what you can’t see. So given that less than 14 per cent of this country’s STEM workforce is made up of women, Hidden Figures can’t be written off as a history lesson.
This is a film about how prejudice is born from a refusal to see what is right in front of us. When Costner’s character asks Johnson where the hell she goes for 40 minutes every day, he is genuinely surprised by her answer. It simply hadn’t occurred to him.
The hidden figures here are not just the three unsung heroines but the things we willingly blind ourselves to. That message resonates now as much as then.
But how to address it, when both perpetrator and target of such insidious discrimination can be oblivious? The only way is for brave souls to speak up, even at the risk of confirming the bleeding obvious. Point out, as Gwen Parry-Jones did, that there isn’t a ladies loo. Pull up the parent who thinks that STEM subjects are “just for boys”.
The alternative is to live with almost imperceptible (often smiling) bias that one day will look as bigoted and appalling as segregated loos.