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Hidden Figures: A Must Read and A Must See

January 10, 2017

I quit my job January 2016 to write my first book and learn more about being a writer. At least, that’s what I told most people. The truth is I was worn out from Corporate America. Every company has a distinct culture with unwritten rules. And as a black woman, those rules were created by people who don’t look like me. After, 20+ years of ‘the grind’,  I needed a break. Therefore, I was approaching my current job search as a necessity, not a privilege.  This changed last month.

Last month I picked up the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. Although I had heard Dr. Christine Darden, who walked the halls of Langley after the events of the movie,  speak in the 1980s at a National Society of Black Engineers conference and knew the highlighted version of the story, reading the details dug up lots of pain but also hope. It has given me a deeper appreciation for all those math courses I had to take to get my engineering degrees and made me grateful that we do have computers (machines) to do the number crunching.

Dorothy’s story line had the biggest affect on me. In the movie, Dorothy is portrayed by Octavia Spencer.

“What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured” Dorothy Vaughn

Dorothy Vaughn’s strength was as a leader, although she was a brilliant mathematician and programmer. She had the emotional intelligence to pair her computers with the engineers they were compatible with, which often lead to permanent positions for them within the engineering team. She fought for all women who were on temporary assignments to have them become permanent.

Dorothy saw the direction Langley was going with computers (the machine) and encouraged all of her team to take the classes Langley was offering in computer programming. She became so adept at programming, while human computers were being laid off by Langley, her and her team was moved into programming positions.

Dorothy made personal sacrifices to ensure the greater good of all.  She could have easily accepted an assignment within an engineering group, but she chose to stay as a supervisor and she eventually became a manager.  After the desegregation of the women computer groups, she lost her management role and became one of the girls, yet she did not fight the demotion. She saw progress for all by desegregation.

Dorothy personified:

  • Adaptability
  • Leadership
  • Personal sacrifice for the greater good

All the women highlighted in the movie and more so in the book, showed grace while persevering. They understood how they were paving the way for more women to become scientists and engineers. Ultimately this movie is a reminder of our we need to fight – a strategic, patient fight – for our careers.

What I appreciated seeing most in the movie, I’m not sure if this was intentional or not, no white character called any of the main characters the n-word, nor colored. No statements like ‘your kind or your people’ were ever uttered.  It was the looks they gave to the women, the withholding of information,  it was statements such as ‘this is how things are’ and uncomfortable silence. It was Ms. Sullivan constantly referring to Dorothy as Dorothy but never as Ms. Vaughn. Creation of a hostile environment does not always come from those who are angry, spewing hateful speech but from those who are passive and more interested in maintaining the status quo.

As Corporate America becomes more globally driven, knowing how to lead different types of people will be crucial to any companies success. Being able to understand cultural differences and to connect to individuals will be what propels leaders in this century. This is a time that those of us who have navigated racial and sexist boundaries for our careers to bring forth those skills to cross cultural boundaries and build those bridges.

I encourage you to read the book and see the movie. There aren’t many movies about mathematicians let alone women mathematicians.  The story has resurrected my pride in being an engineer.

Disclaimer: I was not paid for this endorsement of the book or movie, nor was I given the book or tickets to see the movie.