Hidden Figures: 6 Key Notes
Two weeks ago I had never heard of the movie Hidden Figures, mainly because I spend 1/4 of my life on aircrafts. But a couple of weeks ago, my friend Jessica posted this video on her Facebook. It was the cast of Hidden Figures accepting an award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. I was moved by the speech and the seed was planted. I went on to have a productive and inspiring week. One of the highlights was when Shelley Zalis came to my workplace to answer questions candidly in an intimate room full of working girls. She referenced a scene from Hidden Figures while claiming women can make a stronger impact together than they can as individuals. The second seed was planted. Finally, on Friday afternoon before my flight from LA to SF, my mom texted my sister and I that we should see this movie called Hidden Figures. It was based on a true story about three Black women (Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary) who were incremental in NASA’s launch of John Glenn into space, where he would become the first American to orbit the Earth during a race against Russia.
It was raining in SF that weekend and Brian and I were looking for an indoor activity. Unsurprisingly, this movie came to mind and I’m so glad it did.
First off, I loved having a window into this unique period in time where there was national momentum showing some hope for African-American women, but the struggle was still very real. It seemed incredible in 1961 West Virginia that women – let alone Black women – were able to obtain jobs at NASA, and in Mathematics at that. It was truly something to be proud of. However, there was no infrastructure or culture to support them as employees once they got the job. America was on the cusp of something huge, but the role of the white male in society and the workplace was still very exclusive and real.
This film did a wonderful job of weaving together many lessons we can draw inspiration from. I honestly wrote down 10+ items, but I decided to hone in on the following:
- Leverage your community
- Seek confidants
- Avoid peer envy
- Work smart
- Spot male champions
- Be ready for your moment
All minorities experience similar themes today, albeit they may be subtle annoyances in comparison to the oppression we saw in this film. These days we are much more likely to experience unconscious bias than bold-faced sexism at the office. But I still found a way to relate to each of these themes in some way which gave me an even larger sense of respect for our female ancestors and what they had to go through to get us where we are today.
Leverage your community
The three main characters experienced constant obstacles at work and held most of it inside while maintaining a professional demeanor. For example, on top of being eclipsed and undermined by her male coworkers nonstop throughout the day, Katherine had to take 40 min runs across campus to use the only 'Colored Women's' bathroom at work which she would later get reprimanded for. All factors were working against these ladies and it would have been easy for them to lose confidence and hope. But outside of work these women were absolutely basking in equality and positivity from the local Black community. Everyone was so proud of them for working for NASA. Katherine's kids drew pictures of her while she was at work as if she was the astronaut going to space. All three women were honorably mentioned at every social event including their church services. Because of their community, these women knew they were not inferior, and they approached their work with pride and renewed strength every single day.
Isn't that how it goes? At work you may not be oppressed but you may sometimes feel that you are just another employee. But at home the people who love you think you are the absolute shit. They just can't get over what you're doing and are so proud of you and excited to spend time with someone like you. Hang onto those people and drink from their positivity every chance you can get, because you may think they’re full of it, but their high regard for you is for a reason. And don't forget to deeply care about what's new in their lives as well - it's a two way street and they need uplifting just as much as you do. Carry the confidence you build in each other into the following week. Remember that in their minds you're already the astronaut in the space program, so start acting like it!
At the beginning of the movie, opportunities take Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary from working together in the same computing department to pursuing different career paths within NASA. Each one of them went on to make her own historical contribution:
- Katherine: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom by Obama in 2015 for her contribution to John Glenn's successful launch in the race against Russia
- Dorothy: Became NASA's first African-American manager
- Mary: Became first African-American woman to get an engineering degree in West Virginia
How is it that each one of these ladies who happened to be friends succeeded so distinctly in totally different departments? They had an outlet and informed support system. When they shared rides to/from work they knew enough about the company culture to be able to understand and relate to each other's experiences. They also pushed each other very hard to keep trying in difficult times. These women may not have shared as much with the larger Black community for fear of letting their fans down. Even if they did, they might not get the same quality of advice.
I am reminded of the first group I had like this. The five of us met individually at various Eli Lilly work events and realized at some point we were all mutual friends or needed to be. We would meet up for lunches or drinks after work and chat about all things work and personal life. We became very close friends. Three of us moved on to different companies and parts of the US, and the other two are continuing to grow in new roles at Lilly. We now call ourselves "Lilly Girls" on our Snapchat and iMessage threads, and our official hashtag is #chicksinmanufacturing. We're even planning a reunion in Napa this coming Fall and it will be the first time we're all five together since 2014. I encourage everyone to attend work events which bring together people from other departments and invite someone you meet there to lunch. This type of connection is a breath of fresh air I strive for at every new place of work. These relationships can help you through a rough time or turn into life-long friendships.
Avoid peer envy
I love when Dorothy mentions candidly to Katherine and Mary that she's so happy for them having taken on new positions which would grow their careers, but she's also so jealous because she's wanting to get promoted and it's taking longer. She ends by acknowledging to herself and her friends that she has to put herself aside, as any one of their career moves could be game changers for the Black community. She ultimately chooses to be selfless and thankful even though it's not her time.
This moment in the movie reminds me to be happy for other women when they are succeeding. Don't view them as competition – view them as collaborators who are pushing the agenda of the larger picture (advancement of women in the workplace).
I've also found that most people in their 20s and 30s feel behind for some reason. We are constantly plagued by this feeling that we need to get ahead. Maybe you spent time getting a graduate degree and you feel like all your friends had a head start; maybe you didn't get the Masters degree and now you're fretting that it's too late; maybe you've had a solid career but it doesn't compare to your friend who lucked out on a lucrative startup acquisition; maybe you're in the startup game and wishing you'd chosen a career path with more stability; maybe you've been trying to leave your current job but it's taking forever to find the right next step and your friend just landed their dream job. Trust me, if you're thinking these things and proactively pushing yourself forward, you're going to make it. But you need to appreciate every achievement you have in the meantime and be happy for those around you. The grass is always greener on the other side. Think about how proud younger you would be if they could see you now.
I love that this movie did not only depict life at work for these three women. That would have been entertaining enough and the movie's scope could have ended there. But it was so much more powerful to see how much these women had to take care of outside of work as well. They worked like dogs, yet their work was just a sliver in their pie chart of responsibilities. They had romantic relationships and kids to take care of with the few hours they had to themselves.
A lot of us work in burnout roles – hello my Finance, Law, Consulting, and Supply Chain friends! It’s going to take a lot to change these old school dusted-over trades which were designed for people who had one goal as breadwinners. I know right now I have to dip into my sleeping and eating time to even get a one hour workout in. I don’t know how working parents with children at home do it. The best we can do right now is get our work done efficiently and draw boundaries anywhere we can. We have to prove that we can work smart and have balance. Number of hours put into work does not always equate to quality or quantity of work output. We know that because we have been prioritizing for generations in order to deliver with all the other stuff we have going on. It’s just a matter of proving this to others who are ingrained in an old culture where the person who puts the most hours in is exalted.
Spot male champions
In the movie, there are three men who stuck out to me as champions for the three main characters: Harrison (Katherine's boss), Colonel Jim Johnson (Katherine's fiance), and John Glenn (the astronaut). I'll focus on John Glenn. When shaking everyone’s hands upon arriving on site for a visit, his entourage was nagging him to skip the “colored ladies” and hurry on to his next engagement. But he refused and made an effort in front of everyone to hold up his precious schedule for a whopping 20 seconds to shake those women’s hands, look them in the eye, and even joke with them as if they were old friends. This moment made incredible impact. Someone of high status just made it popular to be a decent human being and stick his neck out for someone who didn’t have it as easy.
We are all equal, just different.
Men are not bad. Women are not better than men. A large percentage of men do not think any less of women but experience unconscious bias (PS - we're guilty of this too). They are more likely to side with a man because it’s comfortable to them and, frankly, popular within the majority which is comprised of men. That puts you in an awkward place if you’re a woman in a male-dominated field. But when a man notices you keep getting cut off in meetings and uses his presence to note boldly in front of everyone that you had something to say, take a moment to appreciate what just happened. All of a sudden, everyone in the room becomes aware that you’ve been trying to speak and you keep getting interrupted. These unique men have a high EQ and FQ (see: The Female Quotient) for their demographic. They just made it popular to acknowledge and respect you. Choose to surround yourself with people who view you as equals and are completely oblivious to the fact that anyone would think you're less capable because you’re a woman. This is most important in your personal life - pick a partner that wants you to achieve your dreams and knows that you’re a superstar. Pesky coworkers will come and go, but your chosen partner could be with you for life!
I know – this is getting really long, but you're almost to the end! One more point.
Be ready for your moment
Katherine is so good at her job (human computing) that her boss Harrison has more faith in her mathematical explanations than anyone else's. He has no choice but to allow her attendance at a board meeting with astronaut John Glenn. This is typically not allowed, since she is 'colored' and female. Like clockwork, Glenn asks a question that Harrison cannot answer on his own. It's awkward for a second before Harrison punts to Katherine. Katherine stands up tall, walks to the chalk board, and clearly presents her calculations for Glenn's trajectory. Later on in the movie NASA transitions to using a machine to calculate his trajectory, thus obsoleting Katherine's job as a human computer. But despite everyone's faith in the new IBM computer, Glenn still calls Harrison from the rocket before take-off and says "Get the girl to check the numbers. If she says the numbers are good, I am ready to go."
If Harrison had thrown that question at Katherine in the board meeting and she had said "I don't know, I need to check" or presented without confidence, she would have missed that opportunity to show off her strengths. She came in, she knew her work, and she presented it with confidence. That confidence resonated with someone very powerful at NASA (John Glenn himself) and resulted in her being viewed as a critical advisor, thus establishing within the company that women - and Black women - can have great impact. Be proactive and always know the latest in your area of responsibility so that when asked, you have the answer ready without hesitation. That makes you valuable and memorable.
In summary, I was overwhelmed by the amount of lessons I could take away from this movie. I had at least three more but had to cut myself off at some point:
- Getting ahead of new technology: Dorothy secretly teaches her entire department to learn how to run the new IBM machine that is about to replace their jobs
- Holding on to your story: or this movie would have never been created!
- Dealing with that pesky jealous coworker: Paul, Katherine's coworker. We all have one, don't we?
But taking a step back, let's also appreciate that this movie was actually good! I love that my caucasian friend shouted "Hallelujah!" in the theatre during this movie. We (the world) were all bawling. We all felt the power of the struggles and achievements of these women, for the Black community, for women, and for all minorities. There are many movies which do not portray women as level-headed, driven, multi-tasking creatures. Then there are movies with great intentions that lack in quality thus audience and impact. Neither of these movie types will change the number of actresses in leading roles on blockbuster films. Cheers to the Hidden Figures actresses and entire film crew as they are helping to move the needle with the media industry while sharing a powerful story and giving back to three real women who struggled for the progression of all.
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