Workplace Culture

Is Your Workplace Hiding Talent?

By Rick Bell

Jan. 13, 2017

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the film “Hidden Figures” yet, you may want to wait to read this. Oh, heck. Read it anyway. It’s so good you may not mind a peek behind the curtain.

 I saw “Hidden Figures” during Christmas week. I expected it to be good, and it was. Taraji P. Henson (playing Katherine G. Johnson) and Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan) rarely disappoint, and singer Janelle Monae (Mary Jackson) came through strong.

Go see it. It was sad, touching and emotional, and its happy ending was based in reality, as these three women actually existed. Their previously unsung accomplishments at NASA created changes the world feels to this day.

The film brought home how much has changed since the 1960s when the U.S. was in a race against the Soviet Union to be the first to the moon and how much has stayed the same. And, aside from a touch of romance and some truly fabulous outfits — we seriously need to bring back those silhouettes and patterns from the 1960s — the movie offered three obvious lessons related to diversity in the workplace.

  1. The importance of looking beyond the obvious: Al Harrison, played by Kevin Costner, only saw an empty desk when he looked for Katherine. All he knew was she was missing when she should have been working. He didn’t see the mile she had to run to get to the colored-only bathroom, or the rude way her team mates threw incomplete paper work onto her desk, wanting her to perform miracles but quietly expecting her to fall flat on her face.

Said teammate Paul Stafford, played by Jim Parsons, was firmly stuck in his gender biased views. Women should be firmly behind him, and nowhere else. He was fixated on protocol. He didn’t see the value in change or difference, even when his mission— as specified by Harrison— was to think beyond, “to find a genius” among his coworkers, and she was sitting nearby. Their perfect weapon, someone who could see beyond, who could push the math where it needed to go, and that space shuttle into the sky, was ignored, diminished and under utilized.

Stafford’s continued refusal to embrace change — to allow Katherine into closed rooms where females had never before entered, or to listen to her ideas at all — actively slowed down progress. It wasted valuable time, money and resources because once Katherine was in that room, once she was allowed to make a contribution, she knocked the proverbial ball right out of the park, and the team, the group, the mission, got exactly what it needed.

  1. The importance of mentors and sponsors: Katherine expected to be mistreated, to be left behind and underestimated. It was familiar. It’s something many minorities today — myself included — would have no trouble relating to. It was only when it really mattered, and when she got sick and tired of having her time and efforts wasted because of a stubborn refusal to change the rules to suit the task, that she fought. I understand her reticence. As a minority, particularly as a double minority with the weight of sexism and racism to fight, you’re never sure how hard or how far to push before the door you’re pushing against slams completely shut in your face. But Mr. Harrison understood the game. He recognized talent, he appreciated the depth of her gift, and he was willing to buck the system to allow that talent the air it needed to breathe, and the light it needed to shine.

Mary’s supervisor Karl Zielinski, played by Olek Krupa, in his words, a Polish Jew who saw his family carted off to a concentration camp, encouraged her to stretch beyond the boundaries society had set for her. He challenged her to do more, to be more, even when she reminded him of the limitations her skin and gender created each day. And she did, pushing gracefully but resolutely not only against a system designed to hold her back, but against the constraints of her own mind as well.

  1. The importance of never giving up. Dorothy was a study in resilience, foresight and professionalism. She led her NASA team with the same care she used to craft fact and figure-based arguments to try and win the promotion she deserved. Her storyline really resonated with me because it’s still incredibly common. I know people who do a job but because they’re black, female, gay, disabled or whatever do not get the same compensation or authority as a white male peer. I’ve experienced it myself, and it’s ridiculously unfair when the response to your logical request for parity is a lame, “I don’t make the rules,” or, “That’s just the way it is, right now.” That right now is the pits because you know it’s a dishonest sop to a time that likely will never come. Still, it makes you keep hoping anyway.

I adored Dorothy’s character because when others might have thrown in the towel, she narrowed her eyes, expanded her gaze, saw opportunities to make herself valuable, and she took them. She said, OK. You don’t want to promote me to supervisor even though I’m already doing the job and doing it well? Fine. I see you’re faltering with this computer code; I’m going to learn it before everyone else, fix this huge, expensive machine you don’t know how to use, and make you put me in charge because you won’t have another choice. And when that exact scenario came to be, she stepped up and brought her team right along with her. That’s some stick-to-it-tiveness for your mind.

“Hidden Figures” was a study in race relations past and present, but it was also a soft but sincere dialogue starter about the problems associated with gender bias in the workplace. Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn and Katherine G. Johnson broke barriers with grace, class and grit. They weren’t just smart, they had guts, vision, and they refused to allow the limitations of the time, of their gender, of their race to prevent them from wanting and achieving more and making a huge impact on their industry and on the world.

This movie would be a valuable tool with which to teach groups about gender and racial bias, as it proves that even the most change resistant minds can be brought around when the focus shifts from the obvious — sex and race — to that which is hidden: talent.

Kellye Whitney is an associate editorial director for Workforce magazine. Comment below or email

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director. For comments or questions email

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