Practical Career Lessons From Hidden Figures
Katherine Johnson at her desk in 1962. Credit: NASA Langley Research Center

Practical Career Lessons From Hidden Figures

03/03/2017Written by Kierann Shah

Six career lessons from the Hidden Figures film, as shared by Dr Kierann Shah of the National Space Academy.

Book online now and upgrade to a free annual pass

Book
mascot Telescope Right
Credit: 20th Century Fox
Katherine Johnson. Credit: NASA
Dorothy Vaughan. Credit: Courtesy Vaughan Family
Mary Jackson. Credit: NASA
Credit: @Stemettes
Credit: Kierann Shah

I’ve often thought that sometimes the really revolutionary work in science is done quietly by ordinary people.  For every science headline we see these days there are countless hours of lab work, field work, technology development, computer modelling, and calculations that we don’t see.  Newton once said that if he had seen further it was by standing on the shoulders of giants, but modern science stands on the shoulders of people that many of us rarely hear about.

I knew nothing about the stories of pioneers Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine G. Johnson and Mary Jackson before I was made aware of the movie Hidden Figures back in October. When I first saw the film last week it was definitely an inspiration, although this was as much down to the audience I saw it with as the film itself.

I watched the film with an audience of about 400 secondary schoolgirls from the east end of London and took part in a panel made up of black and minority ethnic (BME) women who work in science, technology, engineering or maths (STEM) related areas.  The event was put together by 18-year-old June Eric-Udorie, a writer and activist who decided when she heard about the film to take as many girls from the area she grew up in as possible to see it.  She got on social media and invited others to help her take more girls by donating money for tickets – and she gained so much support that in the end she was able to put on a special screening at an independent cinema, provide drinks and snacks, and even provide a hardback copy of the book on which the film is based for each girl that attended.

It was a joy to watch that film with that audience.  Although the film was entertaining and uplifting, it didn’t avoid the appalling reality of racial segregation and discrimination, and pervasive sexism, of that era.  I couldn’t help but smile when the audience of girls cheered the victorious moments (and the kissing!) in the film, but my heart was truly lifted when I heard their response to the injustices – their reaction was less “oh no how awful” and more “no way is that happening in my lifetime!”

I was there both as a BME woman with a science background and as part of my role with the National Space Academy, which runs STEM and space careers events for young people. Along with the other panel members I shared advice that has helped me in my career, some of which can be illustrated by the challenges the real heroines of Hidden Figures had to overcome.

Here are six career lessons demonstrated by the Hidden Figures film and the real-life hidden heroines of NASA.

1. Don’t take yourself out of the running: put yourself forward. You might apply for something and fail, but if you don’t apply you’ve already prevented any chance that you might be successful.  Johnson and Jackson regularly put themselves forward for project work outside of West Area Computing Unit and Vaughan repeatedly requested to be considered for the supervisor post.  If any of them had thought “I might not get it so I won’t even try” they wouldn’t have achieved what they did.

2. Sometimes people from minority groups are subject to suggestions that they were only given their chance in order to tick diversity boxes, or as part of positive discrimination. Don’t let fear that this is the reason you gained an opportunity stop you from grasping that opportunity. You don’t hear those in majority groups holding themselves back because of sensitivity over historical or institutional biases from which they benefit.  The women of the West Area Computing Unit were given their jobs because they were African-American women – and therefore their labour was cheaper than that of white men of the same qualifications and ability because of pay discrimination!  Many of the women in the WAC unit were able to then build careers at NACA and NASA thanks to this particular opportunity, even if the reason behind it was negative.  Unless you are on a specific scheme to help women or BME people get a foot in the door, then take any accusations that it you are there on anything but merit as nonsense, and if you are on a specific scheme then remember you are still there on merit (even if from a smaller pool) and grasp that opportunity not least to honour all those who were denied opportunities for the same reason you qualified for it.

3. Just because something hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. As Mary Jackson says in Hidden Figures: someone has to be first.  She became the first female African-American engineer at NASA, something she was told could not be done.  It could be done, it just needed her to do it.

4. Be ready to grasp opportunities. At the time when Dorothy Vaughan was seeking to be recognised as a supervisor she realised that the new computer at NACA was going to spell the end for “human computers”, so she taught herself to programme the machine.  She saw change coming and made sure she was ready for opportunity it presented.  This kind of thinking is really important as the technology we use and the opportunities it presents now change so rapidly.

5. Do what you love/love what you do. Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughan all worked incredibly hard: Jackson took night classes whilst working full time, Vaughan’s programming abilities were self-taught, and Johnson responded to last minute mission changes that required her to redo her work over and over. Yes, they all had to work to make a living, but they also threw themselves into their work because they loved the technical challenges and they believed in the success of the missions they supported.  They loved it enough that they felt it was worth the long hours and hard work.  I’m not saying we all have to love work enough to take it home with us or stay late every night – but success can sometimes be tied into the fact that if we love what we do or believe in it we might work a little bit harder to achieve our goals.

6. Leave a record with your name. The last member of the panel was actually a historian, and she pointed out how difficult in can be to learn about women in history because the records were usually made by men.  The “hidden” stories in Hidden Figures were not hidden at the time, but were not passed on or celebrated much in the intervening period.  Make the job of future historians easier by following this advice!

Speaking to the volunteers at the end of the event I heard one more story that I want to share: at the end of the film when the credits begin images of the actresses playing the three main roles were put up next to photographs of the real-life women they played.  The volunteer said that she overheard an intake of breath from the young girl behind her, who then said with wonder: oh my god, they’re real!

Sometimes the real revolutionary work is done by ordinary people.

Thanks to June Eric-Udorie for organising the Hidden Figures East End event and welcoming me as a panel member.  Thanks to June’s friends for volunteering to help run the day, to the other panellists for giving up their time and sharing their stories, to the Genesis Cinema in London for hosting us, and to all the schoolgirls and their teachers for attending. 

About the Author: Dr Kierann Shah is the General Manager of the National Space Academy, whose headquarters is based at the National Space Centre. Follow on Twitter: @UKSpaceAcademy.