Last week, I saw the movie Hidden Figures, the story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. These trailblazing women were human “computers” at NASA (they did the math before there were electronic computers), and they all made significant contributions not just to the space race, but to advance women and people of color in STEM fields.
I could write a book about Hidden Figures (except someone already wrote it!), especially the feelings that it brought up to watch Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson deal with systemic racism and sexism. I cheered their successes, but it was humbling to think about just how far we all still have to go. Nobody is segregating water fountains or coffee pots anymore, but women and minorities are still very much under-represented in STEM fields.
Katherine G. Johnson was a remarkable woman, but her friends were just as fascinating. I found myself drawn to the character of Dorothy, who realized fairly quickly that the new IBM mainframe that they were installing would eventually put her and all of her friends out of a job. Instead of worrying and waiting, she realized that there would be new opportunities available to her if she learned and adapted. The computer wasn’t going to maintain and program itself, after all! Not only did she teach herself Fortran, she taught her fellow “computers” as well. When the future came, they were ready for it.
I think that the women of Hidden Figures can teach us all about grit, determination, and standing up for yourself and what you believe in. It was an added bonus that it offers up a glimpse of what it must have been like to realize that your industry is fundamentally changing. Let’s all be like Dorothy Vaughan… ready to embrace the future. And to teach our friends!
I just picked up a copy of the book. If anyone would like to join me in reading it, I’d love to have a discussion about it with you all next month.
Image via 20th Century Fox