The end of World War II didn’t bring peace; it transitioned into the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Proxy wars were fought around the globe in a struggle for dominance, and there was, of course, the Space Race, which had its origins in the missile-based nuclear arms race.
The late 1950s and early 1960s were a tough time for America. The Sputnik 1 satellite was launched in October 1957, and the race for space supremacy was on. The first American satellite —Explorer 1—was launched in January 1958. In April 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, and the first to orbit the planet. The U.S. launched its first man into space in May 1961. The Soviets went on to launch the first woman and the first three-man crew, conduct the first space-walk, launch the first craft to impact the moon, orbit the moon, and then make the first soft-landing on the moon. Both countries suffered major setbacks, but America got a man on the moon’s surface in 1969.
It is no exaggeration to say that America was in a state of panic in the early days of the Space Race. Who knew what space capabilities the Soviets were building, and how they might harm the U.S.? It could have been a disaster if America hadn’t been forced to let go of old prejudices and open its eyes to talent in unexpected places.
A Powerful Lesson
I recently went to see the movie, Hidden Figures, which tells the true story of three African-American women without whom NASA never would have been able to compete with the Soviets. Before electronic computers came on the scene, NASA was reliant on human beings to crunch the numbers. There was a pool of mathematicians known as “computers” who would be assigned to various tasks as needed; African-American women were the “Colored Computers” with their own Colored Computer Room and Colored Bathroom. The movie revolves around three of the “Colored Computers”—Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson.
Out of necessity, Katherine Johnson was assigned to the Space Test Group that was tasked with putting Alan Shepherd and John Glen into space and bringing them back safely. The head of the group—Al Harrison—was desperate for someone who could handle analytic geometry. Enter Katherine Goble. Her reception in the group was hostile—she was black and a woman. Not only was she greeted with hostile stares and uncomfortable silences, her “colleagues” provided her with a separate coffee pot and mug because they didn’t want to touch hers. Katherine spent her days checking the calculations of the engineers, and at the end of each day, her work was obsolete because things at NASA changed so fast.
Katherine knew that if she could get into the closed-door meetings where decisions were made she could make a real difference, but there was no “protocol” for women attending such meetings. Over time, Katherine’s mathematical brilliance seeped into Al Harrison’s consciousness, and so he took her to a meeting with military heads and the astronauts. The major problem was calculating precisely the “go/no-go” coordinates for re-entry. Harrison let Katherine go to the blackboard and work on a hypothetical case; she solved it right there and then. Katherine became a little more integrated into the team after that meeting, but she still faced issues. Harrison became frustrated with her when she disappeared for extended periods of time; he didn’t realize she had to run across the campus to her old building to use the “Colored’s Only” bathroom. Harrison soon took a crowbar to the bathroom sign and delivered the memorable line: “We all pee the same color at NASA.”
Before he stepped into the space capsule for his orbital flight, John Glen asked specifically for Katherine to check the trajectory math—he didn’t trust electronic computer calculations. She did, and the rest is history.
Meanwhile Dorothy, who did the supervisor’s job in the “Colored Computer” room—without the appropriate title or pay—was fearful of the large IBM computer that had been installed. She was afraid of the computer’s impact on the jobs of her people. Instead of taking a hammer to the machine, she taught herself Fortran, and then taught it to the others in the pool. When the IBM mainframe took over from the human computers, she became official supervisor of the computer section, and took all of her people with her.
Mary was assigned to the Supersonic Pressure Tunnel. Her supervisor saw her talents and encouraged her to become an engineer:
Mary Jackson: “I’m a Negro woman. I’m not going to entertain the impossible.”
Karl Zielinski: “And I’m a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I’m standing beneath a space rocket that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars.”
To become an engineer, Mary needed to petition the Court to let her take graduate courses in math and physics at the local all-white high school. She sat in the back of the court—where the Colored seats are—but begged to speak to the judge directly. He was won over by her appeal to him to “Be the first.” Mary became NASA’s first African-American female engineer, and after 34 years at NASA, achieved the most senior title within Engineering.
Fostering Inclusive Cultures
The “Hidden Figures” of the story refers not just to mathematics—a good deal of which Katherine had to invent—but to the women themselves. Chance events, along with courage, determination, and resilience in the face of racism and sexism helped the U.S. succeed in the Space Race.
We again are living in a time when prejudice of many kinds is becoming normalized. If businesses want to thrive in our hyper-competitive world, they need talent, talent, and more talent. That means inclusive cultures must be the norm. No more “Hidden Figures.”
What can you do?
- Go and see the movie.
- Don’t make assumptions about someone’s talent.
- Identify and remove obstacles to performance.
- Practice emotional and cultural intelligence to work effectively with differences.
- Help all of your people feel that they belong.
- Challenge bias wherever you encounter it; speak up.
- Recognize your own implicit biases.
- Empower others.
Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (http://www.tmaworld.com/training-solutions/), which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.”