Hidden Figures: Lessons I learnt from the movie


Over the weekend I went to watch the movie “Hidden Figures” with some members of a book club I belong to and I enjoyed it thoroughly! Hidden Figures is a movie based on the historical novel by “Margot Lee Shetterly” (which I have to read!)  . It tells the amazing story of three African American women;  Katherine Goble Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson)  , Mary Jackson ( played by Janelle Monae) and Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer) who worked as mathematicians in NASA  in the 1960s and had to deal with the double bias of being women and being black.  It was such a good movie with roles played by a stellar cast which also included my man Kevin Costner (love him!) and at one point I was moved to tears. While  I am a  African American history buff and have done some research on NASA I had never heard about these amazing women who in the course of doing their jobs paved the way for many others. As with most things in life I learnt a few lessons which I share below;

Your gift will open doors for you and make you relevant : “ Do you see a man skillfull in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men” Prv 22 v 29. Katherine was a gifted “computer”  who  manually computed trajectories for space missions and her skill ensured that she had to be called upon. In the scene that chronicles “John Glenns’s trip around the globe, he is a bit apprehensive about the numbers the computer is crunching but he remembers how brilliantly  Katherine had explained an equation earlier and he says “get the girl to check the numbers…if she says the numbers are good, I’m ready to go” . Wow! She had proved herself so excellently that Glenn trusted her implicitly! When you are good people in authority will notice and trust your judgment

Taraji portraying Mrs Johnson. Pic courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Protect your subordinates : This is important, a good boss shields her subordinates and ensures they have what the need to thrive. She does not expose them to unnecessary danger or criticism and realises that she has the ability to nurture them. In the movie once Al Harrison (played by  Kevin Costner) realised that Katherine had to walk a long distance just to get to the coloured bathroom he made sure segregated bathrooms became history  in NASA. Also when Katherine suffered bias as a woman and was not initially allowed into the editorial meeting for John Glenns mission she stood her ground and her boss once again supported her and gave her an opportunity to shine.

Shine baby shine: Many times as women we are too modest or afraid to take the credit or spotlight. Our male colleague on the other hand do the opposite and are ready to take the credit even when they do not deserve it. While humility is a virtue once you have the opportunity make sure you shine like the star you are. Katherine was nothing short of a genius as she graduated High school at 14  and college 4 years later. She however had  to show the stuff  she was made of and that was how her boss noticed how exceptional she was. During the editorial briefing as well, she did not form “humble” or remember she was “shy” but took the opportunity her boss gave her to shine. Reminds me of when I had an opportunity to speak in front of my colleagues at work in spite of my shyness and stuttering I decided to take advantage of what I considered an honour and apart from getting me noticed for the right reasons it boosted my confidence tremendously.

Find a way: Mary  did not allow all the stringent rules in place prevent her from becoming an Engineer, but instead she found a way to achieve her aim despite the existing rules on segregation. Katherine did not allow any stumbling blocks stop her but thought outside the box and found ways to achieve her aim.When her supervisor made her work difficult by using a highlighting pen to cover “classified information” she found a way around it by holding the documents up to the light. Sometimes we say “well my hands are tied” and feel justified, but the truth is that sometimes it is necessary to find a way to get over whatever barriers you may face and get ahead.

Do not be afraid to be the first: Many times people may ask “how do you plan to do that? Is it even possible? ” While knowing someone has done something  similar before makes it seem more achievable, even when no one has, just go ahead and be a pioneer. In the movie Mary Jackson had to go to an all white school to become the first African -American engineer at NASA in 1958. Now no person of colour -male or female had ever been admitted into the college but because she had the will she found a way. Mary petitioned the judge and did great research on him (without google) and was able to get a court order admitting her into that school, talk  about determination! Dorothy Vaughn was also the first black supervisor at NASA. In the movie we see Dorothy whining about the unfairness of doing the work of a supervisor without being given the role and pay, but she didn’t just sit and complain, instead she prepared herself by learning  FORTRAN  and soon enough she got her desired role.

Be prepared: This is the boy scouts motto and indeed is one all people should have. You need to always be ready,  as it was not raining when Noah built the ark. Preparation is necessary to ensure success when opportunities arise. Dorothy Vaughn knew that the IBM computers needed programmers so she began to prepare herself for that role.Had she not been prepared the opportunity to be a computer programmer would not have been one she would have been equipped to take. Like I mentioned above she learnt the FORTRAN program herself  and even when the material she needed to learn was not in the coloured section she still made sure she got it against all odds. It is not enough to lament about your present predicament, without doing anything  to change it. Instead prepare yourself for your next level so that when the opportunity comes you will be a round peg in a round hole and without any doubt be the woman for the job.

Adapt or become obsolete: the only constant thing in life is change and Dorothy knew that technology was changing and if she and the West computers didn’t adapt and learn they would loose they jobs. In order to remain relevant you need to constantly upgrade yourself and be on top of new and emerging trends in your line of business.

Behind every successful woman: Yep it is awesome when you see a strong woman who is being a queen and doing great stuff but the unsung heroes are the men who support them. These men are secure enough to let their women shine! In the movie the heroines had men in their lives  who showed support and encouraged them to be who they wanted to be. Sometimes the man may not be necessarily a spouse but perhaps a mentor, relative or co-worker who just believes in you and pushes you to go for the stars. That was the case with Mary Jackson who had a supportive husband as well as a supportive colleague senior aeronautical engineer Kazimierz who encouraged her to become an Engineer herself. Indeed many of the successful women I have spoken to expressed their gratitude at men who believed more in them than they did in themselves.

Do not shut the door behind you! In other words when you climb the ladder of success take other women with you. Some women are known to be selfish when it comes to helping other; thankfully most of the women I know are not like that. Rather they are like Dorothy who after getting an opportunity to move on up, insisted she had to take her girls with her. You see she knew that there was enough space at that level for them all and she also realised that if they stayed back they my end up loosing their jobs. Dorothy also understood PURPOSE, she knew that all the knowledge she had gained was not just about her but to empower and bless others as well. She understood… they all did and their actions are inspiring  many today.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. This line attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt was shown clearly in the life of  these women.  Mrs Johnson once said ” I don’t have a feeling of inferiority, never had. I’m as good as anybody, but no better.” Mrs Johnson and her colleagues of colour were confident women who despite working in a segregated environment always held their heads up high.

As parents sacrifices must be made . Mrs Johnson  was born  Creola Katherine Coleman in 1918 Her parents knew how much she loved maths and dreamt off geometry and algebra as she was always counting round the house. However as the segregated school system where they lived stopped at grad 6 they had to take off 125 miles away every fall to ensure Katherine and her siblings furthered their education.  I am certain it was not convenient but they went ahead regardless to ensure that their children got an education.

There are so many other lessons I learnt from the movie and the lives of these women, but now I want to hear from you. What lessons did you learn from “Hidden Figures”?




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  1. I found this inspiring and have learnt some good lessons. Sadly, these limitations are still very much around- in Nigeria. The value of stories about women who successfully smashed glass ceilings cannot be over emphasized. Well done Chiomah!

  2. Great perspective Chiomah! I watched the film a while ago, and thought it was inspiring. I love the way you highlighted the lessons you learnt. Thank you for reminding me of them…..

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