The film Hidden Figures - recounting the true and little-known story of a team of African-American women who provided NASA important mathematical data needed to launch its first successful space missions - opens in New Zealand cinemas this week. It's a theme that still resonates in science today, with women and ethnic diversity under-represented, particularly at higher levels. As a new public fundraising drive toward a scholarship for women in science kicks off, science reporter Jamie Morton talks to Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, of the University of Auckland's Department of Physics and author of the 2015 BWB book Why Science Is Sexist, and Dr Pauline Harris, an astrophysicist and research associate at Victoria University's Te Kawa a Maui - School of Maori Studies.

The film Hidden Figures was set decades ago. But how far have we really come since then in addressing ethnic and gender diversity in science?

Nicola Gaston (NG):

It's set in 1961, and in an era when racial segregation was still legal in the US.

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So there is a sense in which we've come a long way.

But for all that, the film left an indelible impression with me that the subtle signs of discrimination - awkward relationships with co-workers, and issues around who it is that gets to take credit for scientific work - that affected their ability to just get on with the job, are those that still exist.

Those moments really resonated with me, and I think they are still a serious issue to be addressed in male-dominated (or white-dominated) workplaces.

There are also other examples - such as the lack of "coloured" toilets in proximity to Katherine Johnson's new office - that strongly referenced some of the modern concerns we have about the unnecessary gendering of toilets and the consequences that that exclusion has for transgender people.

Pauline Harris (PH): I think we have come a long way in addressing the gender gap, however, there is a massive chasm that still exists.

It also depends on what sort of science you are talking about.

In the physical sciences, there is still a huge gap between the number of female students when compared to male students.

The number of staff has improved slightly but it is still significantly male-dominated.

In general behaviour, we still notice things such as the condescending behaviour of male scientists to female ones, but not as much as what you saw some 30 years ago.

Also, the still-wide gap between positions and pay scale is still very noticeable.

It, however, is becoming more common to see women having children and staying in their scientific position.

This seems to be more acceptable in today's times.

In terms of ethnic diversity, I can only comment from my own personal perspective on the representation of Maori and Pacific Islanders in science.

Read more: Women in science

In terms of staff numbers, it is incredibly low: so low that it is rare to see another Maori or Pacific Islander academic in science.

Although we exist, our interest lies outside mainstream science objectives.

I do feel this is changing, albeit slowly.

Also, the representation of students at masters and PhD is also low, whilst the undergraduate levels are somewhat better.

The number of international people that are working in science in Aotearoa-New Zealand is incredibly high in contrast with the number of Maori and Pacific, which is staggering low, considering this is the Pacific - I question what is going on.

For example, there are no Pacific Islanders or Maori in my department who are academic staff except myself; there is one in Psychology and a few in Environmental studies.

Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, is depicted with NASA mission specialist Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) in Hidden Figures. Photo / Hopper Stone, SMPSP; Twentieth Century Fox
Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, is depicted with NASA mission specialist Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa) in Hidden Figures. Photo / Hopper Stone, SMPSP; Twentieth Century Fox

Why is this?

Why are these sort of positions so European orientated?

There are hardly any people from Asia or India as well.

What's going on that perpetuates this behaviour and acceptance of the norm that is viewed as good to have such little diversity?

In saying this, the university I am at is making changes, which I do feel are very positive and in the right direction.

Why have we been so slow to close the gaps?
NG: I think that there are a number of feedback loops in play that inhibit progress.

One is that for a long time, scientists had a strong bias towards a kind of biological determinism in analysing the effects of gender (or rather, of sex).

There's a sense in which that made science complicit in reinforcing the biases - or quasi-intellectual excuses - of those who were inclined to suggest that there was something natural about male-dominance in science.

There was some self-interestedness at work as well, of course.

This is of particular interest, of course, if we look at how sexism and racism intersect: the idea that there is something natural about racial superiority is in some ways more offensive to us now than the idea that there are natural differences between women and men that explain relative success in science.

Having said that, we now see white supremacy making a comeback in the US, which is deeply concerning.

Both the pseudoscientific excuses for sexism and racism are balderdash, but there are differences in the ways they play out.

The importance of the relationship between sexism and racism is reinforced for me by the experiences of the women in the film: sexism is part of their experience, but their professional lives are largely dominated by racism.

PH: It's so slow because there is a lack of realisation that many of the people in positions of influence do not recognise that there is a problem and that they need to be more proactive in creating change.

Also, people are overworked and this, I think, contributes to the lack of realisation and proactiveness.

Also, there is a lack of understanding in terms of how to engage with different ethnic groups.

Recently, we conducted a massive outreach programme called Tuhono i te Ao that ran a programme which had 4500 Maori and Pacific students engaging with science and Matauranga Maori.

A scene from the film Hidden Figures, in which Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan meet an astronaut they helped send into space. Photo / Hopper Stone, SMPSP; Twentieth Century Fox
A scene from the film Hidden Figures, in which Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan meet an astronaut they helped send into space. Photo / Hopper Stone, SMPSP; Twentieth Century Fox

This programme was initiated by the organisation I chair called the Society for Maori Astronomy Research and Traditions (SMART) and was a collaboration with Victoria University of Wellington's Te Roopu Awhina.

It involved more than 100 different people and volunteers, as well as thousands of hours of planning and development.

There is a growing awareness that this sort of thing is necessary to engage Maori and Pacific peoples.

However, it is vitally important that Maori and Pacific peoples are at the forefront of this engagement from the beginning at planning to the implementation.

Read more: Women's passion now their careers

We are truly passionate about creating an opportunity to engage our youth and to help them realise that this is a possible pathway for them.

This sort of engagement is essential at research level also.

Maori and Pacific peoples must be at the planning table, not brought in at the end to tick the cultural engagement box.

This too is now changing which is good to see.

How challenging has it been to highlight the problem and get action? What hurdles have change-makers been up against?
NG: The catch 22 is always that if you work to fix the problem, as a member of group affected by systemic bias, you skew the data on that group because of the cost of that work to your own career.

I've been lucky on this particular measure, but it is something I am really conscious of when I see it affecting others.

PH: It's taken many years, discussion, ideas sharing with each other and many, many hours of hard work.

I've been doing this for 15 years - and there were people before me as well, and many others around the country.

Maori and Pacific peoples have taken the challenge to set up and effect change in many areas, including that of growing our youth's opportunities to engage with science.

The hurdles are that our science is Pacific/Maori, which is different in the eyes of those that are not.

Sexism and diversity problems still exist in science today, says Associate Professor Nicola Gaston. Photo / Supplied
Sexism and diversity problems still exist in science today, says Associate Professor Nicola Gaston. Photo / Supplied

People for a long time were dismissive of Maori and Pacific knowledge and especially of our knowledge of science.

This makes our science unique but also means that it is at times not valued and viewed as not important in the eyes of others.

This makes it a challenging space to work in - and sometimes there is no welcoming space to work in.

Thus it has been up to a small number of us Maori who are in the sciences and Pacifica whanau to develop programmes that are game-changers.

The challenges were firstly getting support financially to run these programmes.

However, over the last four years, funding has become available and now we are getting the support to design and implement these programmes, which is awesome.

One of the main challenges is, how do we create programmes that are culturally relevant and sustainable for the long term?

This presents another challenge, but we are not afraid of the challenge - all it takes is time and thought.

Is this a problem that's particularly apparent in science than other professions? What is it about science that makes it an issue?
NG: Beyond the concept of biological determinism, there is the issue that the idea of objectivity is something that scientists take rather personally.

It's something that we aspire to collectively, and that makes it hard not to aspire to it as an individual.

But that personalised view of objectivity makes it harder, perhaps, for scientists to come to terms with the idea that the stereotypes they have about people - based on gender, or ethnicity, or other attributes - affect their judgements and damage the ability of science as a whole to promote people on actual merit.

PH: Science is quite unique I think; I am unsure of other challenges from other professions.

But science does have a large gender gap and, then in New Zealand, the ethnic diversity is really bad.

I think I have described why it is bad in science.

Science, as well, historically, has separated itself off from culture and has pride in doing so.

But I ask the question: is this a good idea all the time and is this actually true?

Last year the Royal Society of New Zealand announced an increase in diversity among its members, and the body seems to be taking the issue seriously. But how long will it be before we see real change?
NG: That's hard to say.

A single year of gender equal RSNZ elections is not enough; but the weight of the historical backlog is so massive that continued and constant gender equal elections will not in my lifetime shift us to an equality that accounts for the historical representation.

Dr Pauline Harris. Photo / Supplied
Dr Pauline Harris. Photo / Supplied

Indeed it will take longer, for Maori or Pasifika representation.

My guess is that "real change" is best evaluated as somewhere between these two extremes ... but it will take us a long while to be able to judge this fairly.

PH: That's great that it's been increasing; I'd like to see the stats on the overall numbers.

I like the Royal Society: they're good people and they know and understand that diversity, culture and gender equality is important.

Read more: Royal Society tackling diversity issues

I don't know how long real change will take - that is up to the decision-makers to be bold and create change by creating a long-term plan, then implementing that plan.

In terms of ethnic diversity with Maori and Pacific Islanders, we see that some institutions and leaders - vice-chancellors, deans, pro-vice chancellors and heads of department - are making changes.

But then there are some who still say we don't need to do anything about it and that it's not their responsibility.

But sorry, actually it is their responsibility.

They are responsible to the students who attend their institutions and to the society that funds them, to the land and people that live here and to the future generation.

How can people in and outside the field help increase diversity in science? At a grass roots level, do we need more school teachers to be championing the cause to pupils from a young age?
NG: Teachers are incredibly important in influencing what young people choose to study, but I'm a bit suspicious of efforts to increase diversity in science by telling young people that that is needed.

I think we need to avoid putting the burden of change on their shoulders, and simply ask: do we have a fit for purpose education system that aims to expose all our students to the arts, sciences, and other subjects in an open and non judgemental way that best allows them to explore, and to choose, what it is that they are good at.

This may seem like a simple thing - I am sure that it is what all teachers aspire to - but I suspect that resourcing, and performance metrics, get in the way more than we realise.

That's where I would like to see our effort being put.

PH: In terms of ethnic diversity and more specifically as I state above, it takes negotiation and a strategic plan from those in power to effect shifting the diversity whether it be ethnic or gender.

Proactive planning and strategies and implementation are essential but also having a multilayered approach at multiple levels from top-level support from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Royal Society as well as the Tertiary Education Commission, down to the vice-chancellors at the universities to deans, pro-vice chancellors and heads of departments, to high school principles and teachers as well as primary, and even younger.

Everyone needs to be proactive and discuss how to effect change.

In order for us to grow the number of Maori and Pacific people, there needs to be more scholarships and education programmes; growing staff who can become lecturers and professors; and more teachers who are visible to our Maori and Pacific students will provide role models and people our youth can relate to and aspire to.

If there are none at the moment then these people need to be grown, nurtured and supported so that they can have the energy and resources they need to grow the next generation and become the likes of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson.

A gala screening of Hidden Figures to raise funds for a first year scholarship for a woman to study physical sciences, mathematical sciences, or engineering at any New Zealand university, is now sold out, but with a commitment to funding the full three years of undergraduate study, people can donate to an ongoing scholarship fund to be administered by the Association of Women in Science.