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The Importance of Representation

This past week I was privileged to take part in two different programs at work aimed at increasing the number of young African-Americans and people of color who go into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) - the Washington Alliance for Better Schools and the Academy for Creative Excellence.

In both programs, as part of inspiring kids to go into these fields, they want to know what made you choose this path. I discovered Star Trek on UHF channels when I was 4. A few years later, Star Wars came out. And when I was in 7th and 8th grade (the same age as the kids in the ACE program), I found comic books, where characters like Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Bruce Banner, and Hank Pym were scientists and engineers that I wanted to be like.

I was pressed to answer deeper; what was it about Star Trek - my first influence - that attracted me? It was the notion of exploration, journeying into the unknown, traveling into deep space, and the way that the team worked together on a common mission. And I was asked which character I liked the most. “Spock,” I responded, without hesitation. “He was the smartest one, and he was logical. If there was a question, it was, ‘Ask Mr. Spock.’” (He was both the smartest and the strongest, and it never made sense to me why he wasn’t the leader.)

This was something I hadn’t really thought about in years, and over the next day it kept running around my head. There were more reasons the more I thought about it. Chiefly, it was that Mr. Spock was mixed race, just like me. It wasn’t easy growing up mixed race in the 1970s, so I definitely identified with. He was a bit of an outcast, never fully accepted by either Vulcans or humans. (Bones was outright racist to him on multiple occasions.) He was always seen as different. But he was always respected, often in charge, and a hero many times over.

The important thing is that I had someone, even a fictional character, who could inspire me towards math and science. In working with these various programs, I’ve been told many times that it’s effective, even in 2018, for young people of color to see that an African-American can be an engineer, scientist, pilot, computer programmer, mathematician, or other technical career.

I was talking with a female co-worker at a BBQ yesterday. She’s also an engineer, and she talked about a program she was involved with that aims to get more young women involved in STEM. She would ask the girls in the program what they wanted to be when they grow up. One wanted to be a hairdresser and the other wanted to work at a car wash. There’s dignity and value in all professions, but it would be great if they had higher aspirations like boys their age typically do.

The Marvel movies are probably the most popular series for kids today. If I were to ask you to name an engineer or scientist from those movies, you would probably quickly respond with something like Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, or even Peter Parker. But if I were to ask you to name a female engineer or scientist from those movies, after a minute or two you might come up with Shuri from “Black Panther,” and she didn’t premiere until 2018.

It’s astounding that the Marvel Cinematic Universe debuted in 2008, and it took 18 movies until one had a black lead character. Even worse, a female character didn’t get top billing until the 19th movie - “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and a female doesn’t get top solo billing until the 20th movie - “Captain Marvel” - in 2019.

In aerospace, women represent only 14% of employees on average. African-Americans make up only 4.1% of all aerospace engineers, despite comprising 11.9% of the population. There are a number of factors for this - accumulated advantage and unconscious bias being two of the bigger ones - but if we’re going to increase gender and racial diversity and inclusion in STEM, we need to inspire more girls and young people of color, through both personal and fictional representation.

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