Hopefully, by now you have seen Hidden Figures (if not, what have you been doing with your time? Go see it. Now!) Apparently a lot of people are watching, enough that it "is this year's highest grossing Oscar nominated film, beating out 'La La Land' with $119.4 million."
Hidden Figures tells the story of trailblazers at work, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three black female mathematicians that played critical roles in driving space technology forward, all prior to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, during an era where integration was still far from normalized. Talk about shattering glass ceilings… These ladies did exactly that. While some of their challenges (like running 40 minutes to use a colored only bathroom) thankfully are challenges of the past, many of their challenges are still very relevant today.
Here are 3 professional challenges Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy faced and lessons that can be learned from these ladies, tactics and skills applicable to any working woman today.
Challenge: Getting a stakeholder to see the value in additional training you need to move your career forward. One main character, Mary, was fortunate to have a stakeholder who saw the value in her having a formal engineering education. However, because they lived in Virginia, which was still segregated at the time, she needed to petition the courts in order to get the necessary training.
Mary speaks with a judge about enrolling in a night class at a segregated school, and she negotiates. Hard! She focuses her arguments on what this decision will do for him and his career versus hers. She did her prep work diligently, learned what he valued and appealed to it.
Lesson: Extensive research prepares you for a successful and confident negotiation. Say you're negotiating for further training. Have you considered what positive impact your training will have on the bottom-line? Or the decision maker? Do you know what motivates the decisions they make for the company? What will they get out of the deal if you pursue further training or education?
Challenge: Only being experienced in a process or tool that is becoming outdated. Before computers and calculators were in use, NASA used female computers, both black and white, to do all the math by hand. Another main character, Dorothy, learns that the IBM, a new invention at the time, is going to be the new computer for NASA putting her and the other computers out of work.
Dorothy takes it upon herself to learn how to operate and program the IBM and then teaches the other 20 black computers what she knows. She makes them indispensable, so that while the other female computers are getting fired because they are of no use anymore, her and the women she works with will always be needed.
Lesson: Invest in training and learning new skills to stay ahead of the curve. In today’s economy and technology driven world, employers are always looking for ways to cut back on spending or make more money. Pay attention to trends and news regarding your industry. Are there new apps you could be learning to make you work more efficient? Are there new skills you can be learning to stay ahead of the curve? Be proactive!! Take it upon yourself to make sure you always know the latest skill or information about your industry.
Challenge: Boss has a blindspot and doesn’t realize a unique obstacle you have to face. The other main character, Katherine, has been running back and forth between buildings every day for 40 minutes, because as a black woman, she can’t use any of the "whites only" bathrooms where she is stationed. Her boss notices her absence and begins to berate her for her continued breaks because he doesn’t notice there aren’t any restrooms for black women in their building.
Katherine defends herself and explains why she’s absent for those 40 minutes. Her boss is taken aback by her admission and his blindspot. He takes it upon himself to desegregate the bathrooms so no one has to run back and forth between buildings.
Lesson: Speak up! Don’t suffer in silence. A blindspot means the boss literally cannot see what they are missing. You are valuable to your team. Tell them what you need to be successful. If Katherine hadn’t spoken up, she would have continued to suffer and be reprimanded for something out of her control. Is there something you need to bring to your boss or team's attention so you can do your job better?
Times have changed, but tactics that trailblazers used in the past, can still be used today.
*Image from Hidden Figures Facebook page