By: Paolo Gaudino and Ellen Hunt
There is a reason Hidden Figures has been the top-grossing film for the last two weeks: beyond great performances, this is a story of empowerment, of black women overcoming the double barriers of race and gender. They not only succeed, but in their journey they become heroes in America’s race to space against Russia.
Based on the historically accurate book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the movie tells the story of three African-American women in the 1960s who worked as mathematicians at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
While the movie is a fictional interpretation of the book bearing the same title, many of the historical details are preserved, portraying events that triggered the initial breakdown of racial barriers during a key period of the Civil Rights Movement.
The movie is full of gems that inspire those striving to achieve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Here are nine lessons from Hidden Figures that leaders can put into action today.
- Remove obstacles for your workers.
After realizing that Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P. Henson) had to spend half an hour walking across Langley each time she needed to use the bathroom, Al Harrison (played by Kevin Costner) uses a crowbar to smash down the sign that identifies the only bathroom at Langley reserved for women of color, and then quips “here at NASA we all pee the same color!” In so doing, he effectively removes a significant obstacle to make Goble’s work easier. And, as is often the case, by identifying and fixing the problem for one person, he removed an obstacle that was impacting a large number of talented people.
In the movie, the storyline justifies Katherine Goble’s appointment simply by mentioning that Harrison’s Space Task Group was looking for a new “computer” (literally, a person to perform manual calculations). However, as explained in the book, the United State’s involvement in World War II created huge demand for skilled labor in the Defense Sector. Women began being recruited at Langley in 1935, but by 1943 the need for talent was becoming desperate. Just two years earlier, President Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 8802, ordering the desegregation of the defense industry. This opened the door for Langley to expand their talent search to include women of color, with spectacular results.
- Dare to be “first” to break new ground.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe) needs a judge’s permission to attend classes at a local white school – at a time when Virginia was still segregated. Faced with monumental odds against her, she asks the judge: “Out of all the cases you are going to hear today, which one is going to make you the first?” No matter how daunting the challenge may seem, you should not be afraid to be the first, and you should support those on your team who have the desire to break new ground.
When a team of astronauts visits Langley, the entire staff is lined up outside to greet them, with the women of color relegated to the far end of the line. Rather than skipping them, John Glenn (played by Glen Powell) walks over to shake hands with them. This small gesture makes a significant impression on the women, and gives them a greater sense of inclusion and belonging.
- Even with the best intentions, bias can make your talent feel unwelcome.
Just as we were getting used to the shocking depictions of discrimination fueled by racism and bigotry, the movie threw us a bit of a curve. As Colonel Jim Johnson (played by Mahershala Ali) is trying to woo Katherine Goble, he learns that she works as a computer at NASA. Without thinking he says “that’s pretty heady stuff – do they let women handle that sort of work?” In the middle of a movie that highlights racial discrimination, this bit of gender bias shows that discrimination can take many forms.
- When we mess up, it’s important to apologize.
Colonel Johnson’s remarks elicit a rather fiery reaction from Katherine Goble. And although his initial attempt to apologize makes things even more awkward, he later comes back with a sincere apology, and eventually wins her heart. While it is almost impossible to get rid of all of our unconscious biases, being ready to acknowledge our mistakes can help to defuse potentially damaging situations.
- Use your privilege to empower someone.
Toward the end of the movie, as John Glenn is preparing for his historic flight, he specifically asks Al Harrison whether Katherine Goble had checked all the figures. In the movie, this is a critical moment because Goble, who had recently been moved to a different group, is catapulted into a prominent role. Without Glenn’s support, she would no longer have been in the Space Task Group.
- Supporting others is the best way to help yourself.
When Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) learns that a new IBM computer has been installed on the base, she takes it upon herself to learn how to use it. However, instead of keeping that knowledge to herself, she gets all of her colleagues to learn how to use it. Building up the team places her in a position of strength when the Langley managers realize they need personnel who can operate the new computing machines.
- When we focus on performance, diversity emerges naturally.
The entire movie sends a clear message: when it comes to driving for success, neither skin color nor gender should matter. The only thing that can make a difference is performance. And it is the performance of individuals like Katherine Goble, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan and countless other African American women, that began to pave the way for greater equality in the workplace. In short, performance is the great equalizer .