That might seem obvious to anyone who’s seen the film Hidden Figures. The 21st Century Fox Studios movie, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, tells the story of African American women mathematicians in the 1960s who overcame sexism and discrimination in the workplace and played a pivotal role in NASA’s space program.
The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ American Film Showcase Program facilitated the screening of Hidden Figures in more than 100 countries, bringing diverse audiences together and sparking conversations on how to advance future cooperation in the STEM fields. Inspired by the successful screenings, the U.S. Department of State worked with private sector partner organizations around the country to engineer an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) exchange project, Hidden No More: : Empowering Women in STEM. Women scientists, engineers and educators from 48 countries traveled in the United States for three weeks to collaborate with U.S. counterparts and develop strategies to strengthen the participation of women and girls in STEM.
One of these women is Sofia Contreras, a technology entrepreneur from Argentina who founded the non-governmenal organization Chicas en Tecnología. “If you Google ‘what is a programmer,’ you see only men…You can’t be what you can’t see,” she said. Providing opportunities for these inspirational women in STEM fields to see and collaborate with each other was an integral part of the exchange.
The women leaders traveled to 11 U.S. cities ranging from Syracuse, Washington D.C., and Pensacola in the east to Louisville, Lincoln, and Chicago in the heartland, to Albuquerque, Seattle, and Los Angeles in the West. Bermudian marine scientist Dr. Tammy Warren said the project gave her, “a clearer leadership vision, impressed her with the importance of mentorship, and gave her ideas on how to encourage youth- especially girls- to pursue careers in STEM fields.”
Dr. Warren and the other participants are now home, already working in their communities to put those ideas into action. Some of the participants have created a new website to track activities they’re creating to stir interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Others are hosting local events to promote women in STEM, such as alumna physicist Sandra Alvarenga. She showed an audience in San Salvador clear examples of STEM programs for young women that could be replicated by the State Department’s American Spaces network.
The energy has continued in other ways as well. Just last week, the State Department’s online talk show for exchanges, Washington Circle, hosted author Margot Lee Shetterly for a live, interactive discussion on civil rights, women’s empowerment and STEM. It was broadcast to an audience of 338,000 active members of our International Exchange Alumni network. Sharing the Hidden Figures ideas and values around the globe, the conversation is continuing via a virtual book club, connecting Greensboro Public Library with local readers at U.S. Embassies in Nicaragua, Liberia, Philippines, and Afghanistan.
The State Department’s international exchange programs could not take place without close partnerships with the American private sector. Ensuring that strong women role models are Hidden No More, the State Department partnered extensively with American communities, NGO’s, and businesses, including 21st Century Fox Studios, the Association of Women in Science/National Science Foundation, and the National Academies. Harking back to Dr. Tan’s observation, America’s – and the world’s – scientific and economic advancement will profit from more women’s participation in these critical sectors.
About the Author: Elaine Clayton serves in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.