Inclusivity: No More Hidden Figures

| By TMA World

The end of the Second World War didn’t bring peace; it transitioned into the Cold War between the USA and the Soviet Union.  Proxy wars were fought around the globe in a struggle for dominance, and there was, of course, the Space Race which had its origins in the missile-based nuclear arms race.

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a tough time for America.  The Sputnik 1 satellite was launched in October 1957, and the race for space supremacy was on.  The first American satellite – Explorer 1 – was launched in January 1958.  In April, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human into space, and the first to orbit the planet.  The USA launched its first man into space in May 1961.  The Soviets went on to launch the first woman, the first three-man crew, conduct the first space-walk, launch the first craft to impact the moon, orbit the moon, then make the first soft-landing on the moon.  Both countries suffered major setbacks, but America got a man on the moon’s surface in 1969.

It is no exaggeration to say that America was in a state of panic in the early days of the Space Race.  Who knew what space capabilities the Soviets were building, and how they might harm the USA.  It could have been a disaster if America hadn’t been forced into letting go of old prejudices and opening its eyes to talent in unexpected places.

I recently went to see the movie “Hidden Figures” which tells the true story of three African-American women without whom NASA would never have been able to compete with the Soviets.  Before electronic computers came on the scene, NASA was reliant on human beings to crunch the numbers.  There was a pool of mathematicians known as “computers” who would be assigned to various tasks as needed; African-American women were the “Colored Computers” with their own Colored Computer Room and Colored Bathroom.  The movie revolves around three of the “Colored Computers” – Katherine GobleDorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson

Out of necessity, Katherine Goble was assigned to the Space Test Group that was tasked with putting Alan Shepherd and John Glen into space and bringing them back safely. The head of the group – Al Harrison – was desperate for someone who can handle analytic geometry.  Enter Katherine Goble.  Her reception in the group was hostile -she was black and a woman.  Not only was she greeted with hostile stares and uncomfortable silences, her ‘colleagues’ provided her with a separate coffee pot and mug because they didn’t want to touch hers.  Katherine spent her days checking the calculations of the engineers, and at the end of each day her work was obsolete because things at NASA changed so fast.

Katherine knew that if she could get into the closed door meetings where decisions were made she could make a real difference, but there was no ‘protocol’ for women attending such meetings.  Over time, Katherine’s mathematical brilliance seeped into Al Harrison’s consciousness, and so he takes her to a meeting with military heads and the astronauts.  The major problem was calculating precisely the ‘go – no go’ coordinates for re-entry.  Harrison let Katherine go to the blackboard and work on a hypothetical case; she solved it right there and then.  Katherine becomes a little more integrated into the team after that meeting, but she still faces issues.  Harrison became very frustrated with her when she disappeared for extended periods of time; he doesn’t realize she has to run across the campus to her old building to use the “Colored’s Only” calculations bathroom.  Harrison soon takes a crowbar to the bathroom sign and delivers the memorable line, “We all pee the same color at NASA.”

Before he steps into the space capsule for his orbital flight, John Glen asks specifically for Katherine to check the trajectory math – he didn’t trust electronic computer calculations; she did, and the rest is history.

Meanwhile Dorothy, who does the supervisor’s job in the “Colored Computer” room – without the appropriate title or pay – is fearful of the large IBM computer that has been installed.  She is afraid of the impact of the computer on the jobs of her people.  Instead of taking a hammer to the machine, she teaches herself Fortran, and then teaches it to the others in the pool.  When the IBM mainframe takes over from the human computers, she becomes official supervisor of the computer section, and takes all of her people with her.

Mary is assigned to the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel.  Her supervisor sees her talents and encourages her to become an engineer:

Mary Jackson: “I’m a negro woman.  I’m not going to entertain the impossible.”

Karl Zielinski: “And I’m a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp.  Now I’m standing beneath a space rocket that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars.”

To become an engineer, Mary needs to petition the Court to let her take graduate courses in math and physics at the local all-white high school.  She sits in the back of the court – where the colored seats are – but begs to speak to the judge directly.  He is won over by her appeal to him to “Be the first”.  Mary became NASA’s first African-American female engineer, and after 34 years at NASA achieved the most senior title within Engineering. 

The ‘Hidden Figures’ of the story refers not just to mathematics – a good deal of which Katherine had to invent – but to the women themselves.  Chance events along with courage, determination, and resilience in the face of racism and sexism helped the USA succeed in the Space Race.

We are again living in a time when prejudice of many kinds is becoming normalized.   If businesses want to thrive in our hyper-competitive world, they need talent, talent, and more talent; that means inclusive cultures must be the norm.  No more “Hidden Figures.”

What can you do?

  • Go and see the movie
  • Don’t make assumptions about someone’s talent
  • Identify and remove obstacles to performance
  • Practice emotional and cultural intelligence to work effectively with differences
  • Help all of your people feel that they belong
  • Challenge bias wherever you encounter it and speak up
  • Recognize your own implicit biases
  • Empower others