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Gender Stereotypes in Hidden Figures Term Paper

Gender Stereotypes in Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a realistic drama that describes successful career advancement of three African American women. While working in NASA during the 1960s, the talented females are forced to deal with racial and gender segregation at the workplace. They challenge the conventional norms of femininity by combining their family duties and the pursuit of career growth. More specifically, the movie illustrates how personal determination helps individuals to overcome gender stereotypes that have highly negative effect on their professional lives and level of self-confidence.

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The drama follows the story of three African American females who work in the engendered environment during the 1960s. Based on the real events, Hidden Figures describes how talented colored women deal with and successfully overcome gender stereotypes. In particular, a brilliant mathematician, Katherine Goble, initially endures the dismissive treatment at the hands of white male colleagues to be highly praised for her impressive contribution to the success of a space mission later. To advance her career, an aspiring engineer, Mary Jackson, applies for an official NASA engineer position and receives additional training despite her initial reservations. An unofficial acting supervisor, Dorothy Vaughan, is promoted to the position of a supervisor at the Programming Department after learning to operate an IBM 7090 electronic computer herself. Thus, these three African American women achieve significant professional success through diligent work and unwavering determination in spite of persisting gender stereotypes.

Focusing on the topics covered, Hidden Figures mainly deals with the social construction of gender. The term refers to the promotion and enforcement of socially recognized gender behaviors. According to Pyke and Johnson (2003), gender has little to do with the biological difference as it is based on “culturally established sets of behaviors, appearances, mannerisms, and other cues that we have learned to associate with members of a particular gender” (p. 35). Any instances of non-compliance with the traditional norms of gender behaviors are usually met with public discontent. In Hidden Figures, Katherine Goble frequently faces gender discrimination because her professional achievements pose a challenge to the traditional concept of femininity. During her first conversation with the army officer, the main character harshly criticizes her future husband for underestimating women’s mental and physical abilities based on their perceived incapability to handle the job at NASA. Due to the strong influence of gender stereotypes, the decorated soldier seems surprised by the fact that females can be trusted with such a difficult task as the mathematical calculation. Similarly, Katherine stoically endures the irritation of the chief engineer at the thought of his work being checked by the female mathematician. The respected NASA employee is essentially outraged by the fact that a woman is assigned some power. In both scenes, the behavior of male characters illustrates the adverse impact of the conventional norms of femininity that promotes women’s inferiority. The men negatively react to Katherine’s non-compliance with the socially recognized norms of gender that limit female’s role to caregiving and performance of domestic duties.

In addition, the drama effectively highlights the role of humiliating stereotypes in the perpetuation of gender segregation at the workplace. It is shown in the film that while women mostly perform theoretical calculations and administrative jobs at NASA, the positions that allow the participation in the decision-making process such as a constructor, engineer, and pilot are occupied by men. Furthermore, females are paid less than their male colleagues. In one scene, Katherine harshly criticizes the income gap between the representatives of different gender groups. Based on the stated above, it is obvious that Hidden Figures reflects the impact of essentialist views on the professional capabilities of both sexes whereas uneven distribution of occupations is justified with the perceived differences between the representatives of the male and female population. More specifically, the proponents of essentialism argue that females are more likely to search for the traditional women-dominated jobs including teaching, caregiving, and nursing while men usually stay in the male-dominated fields (Cohen, 2013). The gender wage gap, in turn, is the direct outcome of workplace segregation resulting from males’ striving to preserve their position of power within the organization (Cohen, 2013). Thus, the movie provides multiple examples of workplace segregation in which the principles of job distribution and wage calculation are based on the perceived differences between men and women. Such degrading evaluation of females’ natural capabilities significantly contributes to the enforcement of gender discrimination.

Another aspect that Hidden Figures vividly illustrates is how degrading prejudices hinder the professional growth of colored people and negatively affect their self-confidence. For example, Mary Jackson initially refuses to apply for the position of engineer since she believes that she is unlikely to succeed because of her sex. Since women are commonly considered to be “helpful, kind, sympathetic, nurturing, and emotional” as well as bad at math, Mary hesitates to pursue the career (Bench, Lench, Liew, Miner, & Flores, 2015, p. 537). This illustrates how institutional policies and cultural stereotypes discourage females’ professional aspirations by diminishing their self-confidence in personal physical and mental abilities. Yet, according to the recent research, women tend to outperform men in math in the unbiased environment and do worse than their male counterparts if they are reminded of gender stereotypes (Bench et al., 2015). The provided evidence clearly highlights the adverse effects of prejudices on women’s perception of their professional performance.

After re-watching the movie, I have understood the role of self-determination in the struggle against gender and racial stereotypes. For instance, the white male colleagues are extremely unfriendly to Katherine Goble after she joins the team; however, they acknowledge her admirable professional qualities after the demonstration of her expertise in analytic geometry. Katherine achieves recognition due to her commitment to professional duties. Throughout the movie, she demonstrates impressive restraint in the face of injustice and earns the respect of her co-workers through diligent work. Similarly, Mary Jackson is accepted to the professional circles at the segregated all-white school after the successful petition to the local court. Despite the degrading references to her sex and racial background, the talented engineer proves her right to the pursuit of professional ambitions even when the attendance of night classes at the segregated school by an African-American female is unheard of. Thus, Hidden Figures clearly demonstrates that an individual may overcome racial and gender stereotypes by demonstrating outstanding professionalism, modesty, and determination.

In conclusion, the film shows how strong determination helps young colored women to overcome gender stereotypes that have an adverse impact on their self-confidence and pose a serious obstacle to their professional advancement. The inference is based on the credible evidence from the movie. In addition, available academic literature that highlights the connection between cultural stereotypes and socially constructed norms of femininity has been analyzed. The further study of the question under discussion may help to explain how racial segregation and gender stereotypes are portrayed in modern cinematography.