What “Hidden Figures” Tells Us About Managing Talent And Managing Our Own Careers

N had a pair of free movie tickets and I happened to see a trailer on Youtube describing the unsung heroes behind NASA’s space program during the Cold War. It was sort of a mix of feminism and civil rights themed movie, and I thought we needed some injection of inspiration, so… why not?

There is nothing surprising about the story line; it was based on a true story of how 3 women of colour tried to fulfill their dreams in an era where it was the worst to be both a woman and of African origin.

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Background

There was the main protagonist, Katherine Goble (who later became Katherine Johnson, and played by the actress who acted as Joss Carter in Person of Interest (my fave drama!)), who was so good in math, she was key in developing the math required for NASA to turn the space race around.

And then there was Dorothy Vaughan, who was like a matron to all the “coloured computers” (women of colour who did the crunching of numbers); she was covering for a supervisor post, and was constantly trying to get herself promoted, but in vain because of her skin colour.

Lastly, there was Mary Jackson, who was so good in her work, her boss suggested her to apply to become a full-fledged engineer. She couldn’t, because HR had a new rule that required a certificate in an all-white school. She then started her own march to appeal to the courts to get herself enrolled into the school, and became the first female engineer in NASA and America.

The production team was very skilled in building up the momentum of the story, though cliche at times, and drove a soaring sense of inspiration within me, the audience.

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Legacy or Office Politics?

What struck me was that even though the setting was in the 1960s, and that the society’s problems of colour-segregation was very distant to the present reality in Singapore, the movie still called out to me very much (there was even a moment where the group of young men sitting in front of me clapped in celebration!).

Because beneath the constructs of racial and gender discrimination were messages of office politics that every employed person would relate to.

I mean, who hasn’t been passed on a piece of work, only to find half the information “redacted” because “you are not cleared for the information”/ “I don’t recall the details” / “That was how I used to work to get my wings” etc?

How about unnecessary cultural rules that nobody knew the reason the rules existed, and no one cared to question or even realised the legacy was hindering your work?

The most memorable sequence was that of Katherine having to run to the bathroom at her old office, the “West Computing Group” that was “half a mile away” from her office in the Space Task Group, all because there was no “coloured bathroom” in the building she worked at. Nobody noticed the inconvenience (perhaps they were only interested in numbers, or they were just subconsciously perpertuating racism as explained by Dorothy’s experience) and nobody really cared when she was absent. And when her boss Harrison noticed she was always away from her desk for 40 minutes on a stretch, her colleagues would shrug their shoulders and go “she didn’t say” or “I wouldn’t want to comment for her”.

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We Love Leaders Who Cleared The Way For Us

The climax came when Harrison finally blasted her, excarberated by the fact that she just had to brave pouring rain to visit the bathroom, and she voiced out the difficulties of her carrying out her job dutifully. That particular story line ended with Harrison personally bringing down the “Coloured Ladies Room” sign and told Katherine to use any bathroom to her convenience.

That sequence would have struck any worker deeply. While we will never be sure why our colleagues are oblivious to our difficulties (to be fair, many of us are just so absorbed in fulfilling our tasks, we are just not aware of other people’s sufferings), there were always times when we would just stand there, take a deep breath and wonder why no one lent a helping hand, ya?

And We Must Learn to “Manage Up” Too…

And as leaders, some times it wasn’t because they were being difficult; they just can’t attend to every detail given their “helicopter view”; Harrison being a good boss, did what he was supposed to do when he finally knew the truth: to clear obstacles for his subordinates. Yes, he seemed like THE dream boss we all wanted, but through a simple scene of him hacking down a sign, he demonstrated how a leader could eliminate obstacles his team members face by tearing down legacy rules that no one actually knew why they were there in the first place.

Dorothy’s experience was also subtly touching.

How many of us have “acted up” selflessly? And how many of us have been rejected by HR to be promoted to that position we have always “acted up” constantly, because of untold reasons?

In a final, but peaceful showdown between Dorothy and Vivian (the assumed HR Manager), Vivian insisted she was not being hard on Dorothy (or any coloured staff) in particular. Dorothy reminded her that she might have said that, but her actions don’t agree. This actually harked back to the segment where Katherine’s colleagues’ inaction to her difficulties says a lot about their closeted racism.

However, what I found most inspiring was Dorothy’s entrepreneurship.

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Skills Upgrading Is As Pertinent In 1960s As It Is Now

She noticed that NASA was bringing in them IBM machines (IBM was still starting out and lacked credibility) and immediately knew the machines would make them human computers obselete. Although there were white women doing computing jobs in another building, she knew right away the coloured computers would be “retrenched” first.

She not only took the initiative to learn how to program the IBM machines, but also trained her girls to be proficient in programming, so that instead of being replaced by IBM, they would be controlling the IBM machines, which they did.

If anything, WSG should be using this movie, this storyline in particular, to emphasise on the importance of skills upgrading and moving up the skills value chain!

Due to the limitation of the movie, Mary’s storyline was the most brief, yet it also shouts out “office politics” like a prime time soap drama.

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Good Friends At Work Beats Having The Union

When she finally took the step to apply to be an engineer, she was rejected, and the HR rule, which was new and restricting, seemed everything like the system’s way of keeping people like her in check. How many of us have felt similarly too?

We would have been like her, griping to our close friends endlessly. What her friends did was to tell her to “go to the court or what, but just stop complaining” (very objective friends of hers!). Her fight to get her case to court was like a union action, albeit a more subtle reenactment, to overcome a “silly HR criteria”.

Final Words

In generality, Hidden Figures reminds me of my favourite movie of all time Gattaca, where the underdogs try to overcome the system to be in the place of the elites.

When delved deeper, I find this a movie more like a story of overcoming office politics and at a high moral ground point of view, a movie that stresses the importance of using talents based on their competencies rather than their background or skin colour.

One can watch it to be inspired to overcome obstacles in lives, to reflect on how we manage our own work environment, or, if you are a trainer, use this movie as a training aid!

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Fun Fact:

Katherine Johnson in real life did not have to run half a mile to use the coloured bathroom, because she could not be bothered and she just used the bathroom for white ladies. This made the particular story sequence all the more striking, as a literature tool to emphasise workplace politics. Near the end of the movie, Sam, a colleague who didn’t quite liked her at the start, had to run the same path she did in order to deliver a task from Harrison. When she completed the math, both of them ran back to the main office. Halfway through, Katherine showed she knew the path better by turning a corner earlier than Sam. It was an interesting “reversal of roles” that brought about a comedic effect while at the same time reminds us of the irony of life.

Watch the following videos if you had enjoyed Hidden Figures and could not get enough of them heroines!

Disclaimer: I own none of the photos. All of the photos were taken from the official FB page of “Hidden Figures” (LINK) , with the exception of one, which was taken from here. Please visit these pages to read more about the movie and the contents of the original websites.

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