The golden glow and Hollywood hoopla of this year’s Academy Awards already feel so “yesterday.” After all, show business is all about looking ahead for the next hot star, the next cool trend. Yet some of the biggest buzz of the Oscar season was for Hidden Figures, a Best Picture-nominee that used history in powerful ways to highlight an important but unknown story from America’s past.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood does entertainment and inspiration well. A more nuanced look at this feel-good story reveals a cautionary tale for any organization that wants to realize its full potential.
Creating a mission for success
Hidden Figures tells the story of the black women mathematicians who were instrumental in launching the US space program and putting a man on the moon. Based on a book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film focuses on Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson, three supremely talented members of the all-women, all-black “West Computing” group at the Langley, Virginia research center, America’s hub for cutting-edge aerospace development. In the days before silicon chips and nano hard drives, these women were, quite literally, human computers—highly trained mathematicians who used pencils, slides rules and their own extraordinary intellectual prowess to run the complex calculations NASA engineers needed to send men and metal into the heavens.
The individual accomplishments of these women and America’s soaring success in the Space Race, set against a backdrop of the Cold War, makes for great drama. In the late 1950s and 1960s, NASA was a new, high-profile government agency whose achievements would come to symbolize the American spirit of innovation and enterprise. Beating the Soviets to the moon—a gauntlet thrown down by President Kennedy in 1962—was not merely a technical victory. It was a moral victory for American values that resonated throughout the country and the free world, with NASA becoming a byword for excellence.
But the agency’s impressive accomplishments were not the full measure of the story. By applying the rigorous discipline of a historian, Shetterly shows that some of NASA’s greatest assets went unrecognized and unappreciated at the time—a failure that had broad implications over time for NASA and the country alike.
Connections and insights
Every organization that aspires to be innovative should take to heart the key observation in the introduction to Shetterly’s book. “Just as islands—isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity—have relevance for ecosystems everywhere,” she writes, “so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life.”
Connections and insights. It’s here, as the movie so eloquently shows, that NASA—so well known for having all the Right Stuff—got it wrong.
Had NASA looked closely at its own remarkable history, asking difficult questions like “how have we gotten to where we are?” and “what do we do best?”, it might have used that self-knowledge to better understand and leverage the contributions of women, both in meeting President Kennedy’s challenge and in the decades since. Katherine Johnson, for example, calculated the orbital trajectories for John Glenn’s famous flight and the moon shots that followed. Yet she was never given official recognition for her achievements at the time, and the lack of institutional support made it impossible for her to rise to her full potential in the agency. What incredible discoveries and innovations might she have contributed to NASA? We’ll never know.
In fact, many of highly talented women in the West Computing Group program were simply fired when NASA began to transition to electronic computers during the 1960s. The preconceptions—and prejudices—of the era prevented the agency from spotting their talents and allowing them to excel in other ways within the organization. Coming from such a respected American institution, the message was a powerful one: women didn’t have what it took to be real scientists and engineers.
Recognizing your strengths
That misjudgment, of course, has had serious ramifications. By not encouraging women to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects in school—and in some cases by subtly discouraging them—we’re losing out on half of our potential whiz kids. A number of recent studies highlight this gender gap and offer compelling examples of the barriers that still exist for women interested in pursuing a career in STEM. The perception—reinforced by myth and assumption—is that “girls” aren’t good at math and science, or else don’t like it. NASA’s own history clearly tells us otherwise.
Which begs the question: what are you overlooking in your organization?
As Hidden Figures shows, your most valuable assets may be hidden in plain sight, and only a critical examination of your past experience can help you uncover them.
Andrea DaRif, a Saybrook consultant, is an award-winning art director and historical novelist who has published articles on history and culture for a range of publications.