When Octavia Spencer first read the script for Hidden Figures — based on a book about the African American women who did the math for our early space launches — she thought it was fiction because it seemed too good to be true. Her disbelief reveals how conditioned we are to think that only white men make notable contributions to science, technology, engineering and math — and how important it is that we celebrate stories of the women who do.
Big Hollywood movies based on true stories are an excellent way to do this. Narrative has a role to play as well, especially when it comes to another form of popular media: Romance novels, the second largest category of fiction in the U.S. Long derided as mere smut, these days romance novels feature heroines in the STEM fields — and the prejudices and obstacles they face on the way to a personal and professional happy ever after.
The romance in Courtney Milan's Hold Me is off to a rocky start when the hero, Jay na Thalang, assumes the heroine must be a lab supply salesperson when she shows up at his graduate studies lab. Not only is Maria Lopez a woman, she's a pretty, "done up" woman with an interest in shoes and planning her brother's wedding. She cannot possibly be smart enough to be worthy of his time and attention.
But unbeknownst to both Jay and Maria, they are already friends online — or at least their avatars are. When they meet as just minds (enabling Jay to imagine that she is a frumpy, nerdy girl) they are friends and trusted confidants who discuss problems both scientific and, eventually, personal. As long as she isn't an undeniably sexy female body, Jay can respect her intelligence.
Much of the conflict between the hero and heroine in this book stems from the hero's assumptions about a woman's brains based merely on her appearance; what Jay comes to realize is that the problem lies with him.
Even Odds by Elia Winters continues with the theme of a woman's body getting in the way of her brain — not for her, but for the men in the room. Isabel Suarez, a design manager at a gaming firm, just wants to focus on the work. Whereas Maria flaunts her femininity, Isabel learned she must hide hers in order to succeed professionally, so she wears baggy clothes, pulls her hair back and smiles tightly when one coworker's comments make her uncomfortable:
"His words were teasing, but Isabel bristled. This is what she'd wanted, though. It was better just to be sexless and professional, treated like another one of the guys, if she wanted to be taken seriously."
Complications ensue when romance blossoms with her new coworker. Being open about their relationship means owning that she is more than just a sexless work automaton and opening herself up to judgment. Isabel only gets her happy ever after when she can allow both sides of herself to flourish — with the love and support of her enlightened hero (and an equally enlightened HR department).
In Beginner's Guide: Love And Other Chemical Reactions by Six de los Reyes, Kaya Rubio is happy being all brain: she lives and breathes her work as a molecular biologist and has optimized her life so she can focus on it completely. While the plot of her story is familiar — single girl seeks date for family wedding — the approach she takes is novel. When it comes to finding love, Kaya devises "The Boyfriend Experiment" which draws on scientific principles and peer reviewed papers.
Her hero is her negative control, a man so wrong he can't possibly be right. He introduces her to romance — spontaneous, messy, emotional, pleasurable, utterly confounding logic and reason — and to another side of her herself, showing that needn't sacrifice her heart for her brain.
Being romance novels, these stories do end happily: The heroines get to be brilliant and beautiful. They can be smart and sexy and loved for it. It's a message repeated in so many romances, whether these titles or my own historical novel, Lady Claire Is All That, which features a heroine based on Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. Professional success doesn't have to come at the expense of personal happiness.
It's a message that matters, especially with regard to women and heroines in STEM. Those who develop technology we use are creating the world we live in, and having women build it is the best way to ensure that the sexism and misogyny that have held us back so far isn't baked into our future.
Stories have an important task to do here: They show all the different ways smart women can succeed personally and professionally, without having to hide their brains or their bodies in order to live happily ever after.