This is a guest blog post from IKS member Shahara Wright
I watched Hidden Figures this past weekend. If you haven’t seen or heard of it, go buy the book or a ticket to watch it right now! Based on the book written by Margot Lee Shetterly, it is the story of three Black women who made significant contributions to NASA during the race to space in the 1960s. I was personally interested for several reasons. First, Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black Female Aeronautical Engineer, was a graduate of my Alma Mater Hampton University (then Hampton Institute). Second, as a Black woman, I was happy to see a movie where intelligent Black women were not only the lead but represented respectfully and professionally. Last, I was glad to know that these women’s stories, unknown to the outside world, were able to be told.
I left the theater inspired because I learned some things about myself and the world around me. Things that as a woman I knew but did not actually practice. Every woman, regardless of race and ethnicity, should adopt these principles and be inspired to do better and go further.
Leadership means being ahead of the curve.
I, like many people, have read multiple books and articles about leadership. What gets lost, is the one thing that matters. You bring your team along with you. Dorothy Vaughn was the stand in supervisor of the Colored Women computer section. She was frustrated by doing the work, but not having the title or the pay (sound familiar?). She then comes to realize that new technology is coming that spelled the end of her job and untitled position. Knowing that she was about to be replaced by a machine (did I say this was based in 1960)), Dorothy decided that she better find herself a place in this new world.
She broke the rules by educating herself on the language of programing. She went into the all-White sections of the library to get a book on the “language of computers.” She snuck into the computer room where the IBM was being built and learned the parts. She secretly tested out codes to see if they would work. All on her own and without permission, she learned what she needed to learn to save her job. She saw the writing on the wall and decide that she needed to be the author, not a character in the story.
That could have been the end of her contribution. I mean that is a leader if I have ever seen one. But she went a step further and not only ensured that she was able to save her job, she saved the job of nearly every Black “computer” at NASA. She made sure that every woman in her group learned how to work the machine. She held classes and taught them how to program as well. She wasn’t afraid of sharing her knowledge and letting others benefit. She quietly led a revolution by training Black women on how to run the machine that no one knew how to run. When the IBM when online, her team was ready. That is the mark of a great leader.
You cannot wait for the glass ceiling to break.
The movie glossed over it a bit, but can you imagine being the only woman in a room full of men. Now add on top of that the majority of those men think that you are less than human? They are resentful and angry that you have the audacity to be smarter than them. This is what Katherine Johnson was facing. She was a Black female math genius. She threatened the very existence of White male insecurities and she knew it. They knew it and put obstacles in her way to prevent her from achieving what she was brought in to do. But she knew how important her job was. Not just for her professionally, but to the entire nation and a man named John Glen.
In the movie, there was a scene where Katherine demanded to be in the room where discussions were being held that affected her work. She had to calculate the point where reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere would be the safest. She had to be on point and any miscalculation would spell death for John Glen. She pleaded her case to any and everyone (in the movie, it was two composite characters). The “problem” was that women were not allowed in the room. Read that “problem” as a Black woman in the room would disrupt the fabric of the space time continuum. But there she was, in the forbidden room being the only person there who could actually calculate the trajectory. In one fell swoop, she took the stairs onto the roof and stood on top of that glass ceiling.
Stop complaining and get off of your ass!
The movie didn’t do her story justice (I may be biased), but Mary Jackson’s story was significant. She was a brilliant “not” engineer working as a temp worker to build the space capsule. The movie opens with her getting a permanent position and her boss asking her why she hasn’t made any moves to become an actual engineer. After listing all of the excuses about why she is not and cannot be an engineer, she finally decides to apply for the position.
She soon finds out that there are more obstacles in her way. She had to take certain classes to be qualified for the position. These classes can only be taken at two all-White institutions. Understandably, angry and frustrated, Mary begins to vent to her friends. After days of ranting and raving, her friends tell her they are sick of hearing about it. Either shut up or do something about it!
So she did something about it. She filed suit to be allowed to take the required classes at Hampton High School. Despite the Federal Government and Supreme Court’s ruling, Virginia was still segregated. She won her right to attend night courses for the nine classes she needed. This enabled Mary Jackson to become NASA’s first Black female engineer.
Shahara Wright is a Business Law Attorney and Business Strategist. She works with business owners who want to implement strategy to build capacity. To learn more go to htttp://www.theceoeffect.net or Like The CEO Effect at http://www.facebook.com/ceoeffect or Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/thecCEOeffect