WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM ‘HIDDEN FIGURES’?
Gender and racial equality still have a long way to go
“THE WOMEN THEMSELVES WERE ALWAYS VERY MODEST ABOUT THEIR EFFORTS”
Having been a kid during the Space Race of the 1960s, I’ve always reckoned myself something of a space buff. While still in short trousers I could reel off the names of all the astronauts and cosmonauts and their achievements. But I must confess the story behind the hit movie Hidden
Figures came as a complete surprise. Was it really possible that NASA had used rooms full of people to work out rocket trajectories and orbits by hand? And not just any people, but teams of mathematically gifted African-American women – at a time when discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and gender were rampant?
The story of how Katherine Johnson and her fellow “colored computers” – as they were known at NASA in the early 1960s – helped America win the Space Race is truly inspiring in both human and scientific terms. Each day, Johnson and her colleagues tackled mathematical problems of mind-bending complexity while simultaneously dealing with routine sexism and racism.
Yet despite all of the hardships they faced, the quality of their work was such that when John Glenn, the first American into orbit, was given his flight details worked out using an IBM computer, he insisted on having them personally re- calculated by Johnson – just to be sure.
So how come the story of Johnson and her colleagues has remained hidden for so long? According to author Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the eponymous book on which the movie is based, part of the reason is that much of their work was secret.
The booster rockets that were used to put the first US astronauts into space were essentially just modified ballistic missiles, which had originally been designed to lob thermonuclear weapons at the Soviets. As such, their range, acceleration and other characteristics needed to make trajectory calculations were classified. But as Shetterly researched her book, she found other reasons for the role of NASA’s human computers remaining hidden – reasons that are hard to fathom today.
The mere fact that they were female meant their work was largely viewed as just a higher form of ‘chore’ women were supposedly naturally good at. Then there was the effect of the racial segregation in US military and federal institutions of that era, which even dictated who Johnson and her colleagues were allowed to sit next to in the work canteen. With so few beyond their own circle to talk to, it’s hardly surprising their heroic efforts remained unsung.
Perhaps most telling of all, however, is the fact that the women themselves were always very modest about their efforts. As Shetterly told BBC
History magazine in a recent interview, when Johnson and her former colleagues learned their stories would be told in a book and a movie, their reactions was: “What’s the big deal?”
Yet at the same time, they knew they had never got the accolades they deserved. This will seem utterly paradoxical – especially to those of us known as ‘men’. From the first time we successfully use a potty, we males tend to be very keen on making sure everyone knows of our achievements. But women… not so much. And no, it’s not just me saying that. Research shows that women are less likely than men to put themselves forward for promotion, often because they think that if they just keep doing great work, someone will surely notice eventually. That’s a big mistake – and one that benefits pushy blokes with no qualms about bragging to the boss.
In Lean In, her celebrated study of leadership, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg cites this phenomenon as a key reason why women are under-represented at the top of their professions. Hidden Figures does a grand job of showing the feistiness and determination of Johnson and her colleagues in helping America win the Space Race. But anyone who thinks women would find it all less of a struggle today is living on another planet.