Identifying today’s “Hidden Figures”

Hidden Figures is based on the powerful, inspiring stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, three black women whose contributions to NASA and space are incredibly monumental to the nation’s history. Yet, the Hidden Figures protagonists were exactly that: Hidden. Hidden from our textbooks and mainstream headlines. As Women’s History Month comes to an end, we must continue to celebrate important women throughout history while also acknowledging today’s women leaders, specifically black women leaders, and the barriers they continue to face in our workplaces.

In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie Hidden Figures, Katherine is shown sprinting half a mile across the Langley Research Center campus to use a bathroom. As a black woman in segregated Virginia, Katherine was relegated to the restroom designated for “colored” employees. As a woman, she was not permitted to attend meetings crucial to the success of her job. As a black woman, she had to work twice as hard with fewer resources and access than her counterparts. Yet, she persevered, playing a key role in pioneering the flights of astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

Dorothy Vaughan also took the spotlight when she learned how to code the first non-human computers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and became NACA's first black female supervisor. Mary Jackson made strides when she decided to take graduate level math and physics after-work courses at then-segregated Hampton High School. Mary completed the courses and in 1958 became NASA’s first black female engineer.

Despite the accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, most of us did not know who these hidden figures were prior to the movie. Historically, black women have always taken on leadership roles without any accolades or recognition. Our communities, technologies and economies have been built on the backs of these women with little to no acknowledgement.

And, in 2017, black women remain invisible. The Center for Talent Innovation’s Ambition in Black and White: The Feminist Narrative Revised reveals that despite being hungry for leadership roles, black women are invisible to corporate management: they are 47 percent more likely than white women to report feeling stalled in their career trajectory, 53 percent more likely to feel their talents aren’t recognized by their superiors, and only 11 percent have sponsors or senior advocates. Additionally, their ideas are less likely to win the endorsement they need to go forward because, as our research shows, 56 percent of employees at large companies said that leaders at their firm don’t see value in ideas they don’t personally see a need for—a veritable chokehold when an organization’s leaders are predominantly Caucasian, male, and heterosexual, and come from similar educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.

How can organizations address these barriers? Sponsorship. Eighty-nine percent of black women do not have a senior-level advocate fighting on their behalf. Katherine Johnson had John Glenn. John refused to go to space until Katherine confirmed the calculations and reassured him that the mission would be a success. A modern-day example is John W. Rogers who sponsored Mellody Hobson and helped catapult her into a stellar career. Sponsors are there to help black women navigate the barriers and fight for their voices to be heard.

Organizations that fail to tap into black female talent are failing to tap into new markets and innovations. It’s important that companies provide black women with the sponsorship and the tools they need to be successful. In accepting the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast, Taraji Henson (who plays Katherine Johnson) proudly proclaimed, “They are hidden figures no more!” When companies invest in accelerating and retaining black female talent, they will also be hidden figures no more.

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