Becoming Visible: Insights for Working Women From the Women of Hidden Figures

These five quotes from the acclaimed film provide valuable insight on leadership and inclusion.

Photo above: Mary Jackson adjusts a control on an instrument. Courtesy, NASA.

Hidden Figures is the incredible, previously untold story of Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. These three brilliant “computers” worked for NASA in the early 1960s and were the brains behind the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit.

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Almost every woman in business has battled gender bias.

Think about it: Almost every woman in business has battled gender bias. For Katherine, Dorothy and Mary, racial discrimination created a two-front war they fought every day just by going to work.

Their stories were markedly different from mine, but certain quotes from characters in the movie resonated with me especially and provided some insights on what it takes to be successful in business.

Keep running

In 1958, Jackson became NASA’s first African American female engineer – but only after a judge gave her access to the whites-only advanced engineering classes she needed to get there.

It’s no surprise that her movie character said:

Every time we get a chance to get ahead, they move the finish line.

Growing up in Missouri, not having much didn’t stop me from dreaming about making the world a better place and helping people live better lives. But that would take college, and college was not something my parents could afford.

If I wanted to go, I had to figure out how to get there on my own.

One day, when I was 15 years old, I read about Title IX. I had no idea how important it would be in my life.

Before this legislation passed, women lacked equal opportunities under the law in academics. We were constantly denied access to medical, law and other graduate schools – and women athletes were not allowed to participate in sports

Mary’s quote spoke to something many know: As soon as women get in a game, the rules are subject to change.

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As soon as women get in a game, the rules are subject to change.

From business funding to exclusion from key networks, the finish line always moves. So, you just keep running. I did – right to William Woods University on an athletic scholarship Title IX made possible.

Change direction

Vaughan, the human computer who helped introduce machine computers to NASA in the early 1960s, taught herself and her staff the FORTRAN programming language.

As the agency’s first African American woman supervisor, Dorothy understood the problem with business as usual when you’re not the one running the business. She said:

Just ‘cause it’s the way, doesn’t make it right, understand?

In my 33 years with UPS, I’ve unloaded trucks and driven them. I’ve worked in operations, finance and accounting. I’ve moved eight times and lived in several different countries.

With so many different jobs in so many different places, I’ve learned that any one way – be it mine or someone else’s – is hardly ever the way.

And the insight? You must be willing to change direction.

Obstacles are inevitable, and there are three things you can be when faced with them: Defeated, dissuaded or defiant. Defiance and taking different paths turn obstacles into opportunities.

Take charge

There’s a point in the movie where Johnson tells Al Harrison, head of the Space Task Group:

You are the boss. You just have to act like one.

That one really hit home. Katherine’s statement said to me that somebody has to be in charge, and it might as well be you.

Katherine G. Johnson. Courtesy NASA

Society encourages girls to be communal consensus-builders. While these aren’t bad qualities, they often lead women to downplay their value.

If ever there was a place for defiance, it’s here.

It’s critically important to define your sky, to set the bar for what you want to achieve.

Start by identifying who or what you want to be. Create an action plan, find mentors and corral resources. Then, envision the end result, identify the roadblocks, stay true to yourself and make your goal a reality.

Somebody’s going to be in charge – why not you?

I’m extremely fortunate to work for a company that values diversity and inclusion. It’s a company that believes every perspective is valuable, and that we, as a company, are better for what those perspectives bring.

UPS is proud to be on the list of America’s Top Corporations for Women’s Business Enterprises (WBEs), recognized for world-class supplier diversity programs that reduce barriers and drive growth for women-owned businesses.

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It’s our responsibility to enlarge the impact of women in the business world.

Last year, UPS spent close to $1 billion in procurement with small and diverse businesses in the United States. And we’re working to increase that number – significantly – over the next few years.

According to a third-party study, UPS’s spending helped those businesses generate more than $2.3 billion in contributions to the U.S. economy and sustain more than 14,000 jobs. UPS helps women gain visibility, and with visibility, empowerment.

Women like Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson paved the road, but the journey isn’t over. It’s our responsibility to enlarge the impact of women in the business world.

Embrace, envision … and entertain the impossible

I can’t talk about quotes that led to insights without talking about one that triggered some real introspection:

I’m not gonna entertain the impossible.

Jackson, who had defied all the obstacles that race and gender throw up, said out loud what most of us know in our hearts to be true: We may all be in the same boat, but some of us have better berths.

Women can’t hide behind the thing that connects us – gender – to avoid the things that divide us.

Things like race, educational access, economic prospects and the privilege that comes with being on what society considers the “right” side of them. Intersectionality is like diversity – it’s not something you have, it’s something you do.

As the character playing Harrison said in the movie:

We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.

Romaine Seguin spoke on June 22 in Las Vegas at the annual meeting of the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council’s (WBENC), the nation’s largest third party certifier of women’s business enterprises.

You might also like:

Why I’m No Hidden Figure

Preserving the Promise of Equal Opportunity 

Closing the Leadership Gap

Romaine Seguin President, UPS Americas Region

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