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3 Workplace Lessons from the Movie "Hidden Figures"

Shutterstock_550217752Some of history’s best stories are the ones we haven’t heard.

Until the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures” premiered, few people knew a group of pioneering African-American female mathematicians helped propel the U.S. forward in the Space Race.

Thanks to the prominence of the movie, these trailblazing women are finally earning recognition. “The true story also demonstrates the crucial value of diversity in the workplace,” says Kim Drumgo, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the AICPA.

“A diverse workforce exposes employees to the value of different perspectives and experiences,” Drumgo adds. “It fosters innovation and a growth mindset.”

As the U.S. and the AICPA celebrate Black History Month, Drumgo shares three lessons we can learn from “Hidden Figures”.

  1. Strive for inclusion

“Every member of an organization is responsible for creating an inclusive workplace,” Drumgo says. “Research has shown our natural tendencies may be to gravitate to and be more trusting of people like ourselves.” So, creating an inclusive workplace may take purposeful effort, such as fostering a work culture that prioritizes collaboration.

In the movie, astronaut John Glenn demonstrates the power of inclusion when he greets staffers working on calculations for his mission. Although he’s directed to shake hands with only white staffers, he greets the entire receiving line. Glenn’s understanding of the importance of the inclusion of all talent was needed to make the mission to space possible.

“Glenn looked past what society told him and focused on the value that each individual would bring to the mission,” Drumgo adds. “He not only challenged social norms, but his small gesture of inclusion created trust between him and the women.”

“I believe we can solve the shortage of talent by looking beneath the surface of the assumptions, bias and stereotypes we have for others and ourselves, says Drumgo.

  1. Challenge ‘groupthink’

Sometimes, poor business decisions or policy missteps within an organization can be the result of ‘groupthink,’ a phenomenon that occurs when people conform to common thinking, such as stereotypes, or simply do things the way they’ve always been done to avoid conflict.

“In most cases, there is at least one person who clearly sees the dysfunction of groupthink and has enough courage to challenge it,” adds Drumgo.

In “Hidden Figures”, mathematician Katherine Johnson confronts one such situation when she’s denied access to a staff briefing that has never been open to women.

A supervisor explains his reasoning by saying, “There is no protocol for women attending the weekly debrief.” Katherine’s response: “There is no protocol for men circling the earth either, sir.” And just like that, the chain of groupthink was broken.

  1. Grow your career by growing others

“The women depicted in the movie recognized the value they offered not just to NASA, but in leading the way for women and generations to come,” Drumgo says.

In a key scene, Dorothy Vaughn, the unofficial supervisor to 20 African-American women at NASA, was offered a promotion. She wouldn’t accept the move unless she could take the other women with her. This proved to be a career-enhancing opportunity for Vaughn. “We all get to peak together or we don’t peak at all,” said Vaughn.

“Mentoring is the greatest way to grow the talent you are leading and the greatest way for mentors to grow as leaders as well,” Drumgo says. There are a variety of free resources available, such as the AICPA’s upcoming webinar—How to Effectively Coach, Mentor and Sponsor Diverse Talent—to help leaders and organizations form successful engagement programs to fully maximize their talented staff.

These are just a few of many lessons that can be gleaned from this Oscar-nominated and widely celebrated film. There are lessons about stereotypes, unconscious bias and fostering an inclusive workplace, all which have significant effects on how the world does business. If you have not seen the movie, take some time to do so. Who knows what other lessons you may discover?

For more information on the AICPA’s diversity and inclusion initiative in addition to a variety of tools and resources, please visit aicpa.org/diversity.

Click here to register for the free webinar—How to Effectively Coach, Mentor and Sponsor Diverse Talent.

Samiha Khanna, writer, editor and media relations adviser.

"Hidden Figures" image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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