Hidden Costs

30 01 2017


January 30, 2017

I loved the movie, Hidden Figures, about the role of African American women mathematicians in the drama of NASA’s space program. A cleverly titled, extraordinary depiction of a specific era and place in history, the movie highlighted three distinct women, their families, and circumstances.

  • Katherine, brilliant in math and focused on her work, is as sweet and nerdy as they come. We cheer as this hard worker is rewarded both at work and home. She can’t help but think in math terms; I have an acquaintance who is similar with poetry. Recently, this friend found snow in her pocket, and wrote a parody, In the Early Morning Snow, on her drive to help me shovel.
  • Dorothy is the viewer of the future, the one who sees the imminent ending of her Colored Computers Department and takes the initiative to prepare for the next step by teaching herself how to program IBM computers. When she realizes her original product will be obsolete, she adapts, something I’ve often wondered about travel agents or the makers of pagers or camera film, calculators or ice boxes. It takes a certain type of vision and creativity to see what’s coming and figure out how to stay ahead of the pack.
  • Mary Jackson demonstrates individual strength to reach a dream that is out of legal reach by working the system, doing her homework, and persevering. Her mentor, a Holocaust survivor, encourages Mary to take whatever steps she must to accomplish her vision. In her efforts to get permission to take extension classes at an all-white school to become an engineer, she taps into the judge’s personal experience and human nature to become a first.

Based on participants’ recollection and tons (literally) of documents, Margot Lee Shetterly, the author of the book that inspired the movie, provides a striking reminder of the difference one individual can make. Al Harrison, director of the prestigious Space Task Group, desegregated the restrooms and coffee pot single-handedly.  He appeared as someone who, with some prodding, put goals over formality. Likewise, John Glenn is depicted as an enthusiastic, open person who recognized and valued the true source of the calculations that would determine if he returned to Earth or not.

For many years, these women’s contribution went unnoticed and, through this book and movie, we see how difficult it was for them to fully utilize their talents. I think about the hidden costs of not using people and their available strengths because of some personal bias. When we are unaware of a resource, it’s possibly excusable to waste time or money. But to intentionally bypass someone’s potential to contribute defeats us all. We are a country built on the strengths of many, from its inception to the present day. ‘Tis a good lesson to remember now, if you get my “hidden” meaning.