The “hidden figures” in Hidden Figures
Men. Need. Role. Models.
There are so many wonderful men around me that really want more women to succeed, but our society doesn’t show men how to do that.
This essay is not about men taking women’s power. Not at all. Nor is it about men helping helpless women. This is about how the system prevents women from having power — power men do have. Men can wield that power to help women break through.
Make no mistake: the true heroes of Hidden Figures were the amazing women who were crucial to the space program, who were hidden and almost forgotten. However, I will leave it to others to write about these amazing women.
The unsung, overlooked heroes in Hidden Figures were the men who took a stand for the women in the movie (spoiler alert!):
Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) was desperate for a specialist in analytic geometry to help the Space Task Group solve the flight trajectories for the rockets NASA was trying to launch on a desperate mission to beat the (then) Soviet Union to space. Over time, he saw the worth that Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson) brought to his team. She had to make herself seen, but he had to have willing, open eyes to see her.
Katherine Goble figured out why the Red Stone launches were failing, and what Atlas needed to succeed — by holding the inked out documents up to the light so she could read the classified data. That data could reveal America’s capability to carry a nuclear warhead to the Soviet Union — the data was very sensitive at the height of the Cold War era. Harrison gave his permission for her to have access to that data and work on the problem directly. She needed his permission, because he held that power.
When Goble needed to be in the briefings because the data changed too fast to wait, Harrison brought her in on the strength of his authority. “You’re the boss…if you’d act like one!” She said. And he did — no doubt it was difficult for him too. It was a courageous act for him to put himself on the line for her, in front of other men even more powerful than he was.
When, at the last minute, Katherine Goble brought her work to the Mercury Mission Launch Control room, she got the door slammed in her face. Harrison went back for her, opened the door, and gave her clearance to be there — even though her work was done.
Harrison pulls off the coffee pot the “Colored” sign when he realized the other engineers wouldn’t drink after her.
And, of course, the most iconic scene in the movie, Al Harrison smashes the “Colored Women’s Restroom” sign because Katherine Goble had to run a half mile in high heels just to relieve herself.
Women need men of power to use their power to open doors.
Karl Zielinski (Olek Krupa), the Mercury engineer that worked with Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) calls to her when she gets her heel stuck in the grate in the wind tunnel, “no shoe is worth your life.”
As Zielenski and Jackson study the module together, he openly asks for her assessment and advice, respecting her opinion. This simple act — asking for her opinion — can help a woman feel comfortable and respected enough to speak openly.
And a crucial turning point in Mary Jackson’s career, is where Zielenski tells her she’s an excellent engineer, and strongly encourages her to pursue engineering. When she reminds him of her place — something she would never do with her women friends — he says, “we are doing the impossible.” For Mary Jackson, his encouragement drove her to become an engineer. She may not have had the courage without his words helping her believe it was not impossible.
Women need men to support them
The two husbands in the movie (one proposed during the movie) both made important personal transitions — and each became the hidden champions of their heroic wives.
Levi Jackson, Mary Jackson’s husband, at first tries to talk Mary out of becoming an engineer. “All I’m saying, don’t play a fool. I don’t want to see you get hurt. NASA’s never given you gals your due, having another degree won’t change that. Civil rights ain’t always civil,” he says. But he makes an important transformation when Mary heads out to her first day of class — giving her both class supplies…and his love, support, and encouragement.
Aldis Hodge describes Levi Jackson as a “kind-natured soul, as a family man,” and how he loved portraying the support he gave his wife, especially given the difficult times they lived in during the Civil Rights Movement.
Colonel Jim Johnson, at first, is openly surprised at Katherine’s math abilities, when he says, “that’s pretty heady stuff — do they let women handle that sort of work?” He likes her and is interested in her, but this admission puts her off, rightly so. He has a hard time winning her over, until he realizes his mistake. His own transformation is important. He finally says to her, “I’m sorry I underestimated you,” then adds, “and all women like you.” The apology makes all the difference to Katherine — especially the last part, which is when she finally is able to warm to him. That last part is the most important part — he’s not making concessions just for her, but has opened his eyes to the fact that many woman have skills that are commonly underestimated. He’s not just trying to win her over, but has really changed.
These women had the support and strength of these open-minded, and loving men behind them. That support can make the difference in being able to keep up the courage against a constant barrage of barriers and discouragement. Only those who know you deeply and love you can really give you the honest and heartfelt respect that can be the solid rock, the backbone of facing the challenges of being a black woman in a white male dominated field that already has its own inherent challenges.
Women engineers need this kind of open encouragement.
So much of society tells us we can’t. It’s powerful when we hear the words out loud that we can. Even when men respect us, expressing that respect in the open can make a much greater difference. And encouragement from men has its own, different power than hearing it from other women.
I was so warmed by the valiant portrayal of John Glenn, who had passed away Dec. 8, 2016, just weeks before the movie’s release. The actor, Glen Powell, so clearly enjoyed playing such an inspiring role for boys and men, girls and women.
When the Mercury team arrives at Langley, he makes a point to walk farther down the line, after shaking hands with the Caucasian women, to shake the hands of the African American women who are also working so hard. He literally pays his respects by not just shaking their hands, but asking how they contribute to the program. He knew he was seen as a hero, and he knew giving them his attention was just as meaningful and inspiring for them — they were putting him into space. He was depending on them.
And his wonderful scene where he asks Al Harrison to bring Katherine Goble back to check the Go/No Go numbers to verify the flight path. And how adamant he was that if she said they were good, then he trusted them.
Women need the open respect of men — for men to assume competence of the women around them.
Even the judge, who granted permission to Mary Jackson to take engineering classes at a segregated high school, was able to set his prejudices aside, and grant her that critical permission she needed to take those classes.
Women need men willing to change their perceptions.
Women need men’s power to break certain barriers
Could Katherine Gobel have taken a crowbar to the “Colored Women’s Bathroom” sign? Could any of these women have taken the steps that the men took for their sake?
Men can be champions in the right way — by using their own unfair advantages to pave the way to equality.
To do that, it takes understanding of what the challenges are for women.
We need meaningful dialog
So many men around me want me and other women to succeed in tech, but they are also afraid to engage in feminist discussion. There is so much frustration and rage that it invariably comes out, misdirected, towards these men in these discussions, that they have learned not to bring it up, or to be tentative in their thoughts.
Men want to help, but too often get slammed when they try to have an open dialog.
This leads to a very shallow understanding of what sexism (and racism) is — because open and frank dialog is painful and difficult for everyone.
No doubt I’m going to get backlash for this essay, but the dialog needs to be opened, even if it’s painful.
I’m certainly guilty of feminist rage myself, but I can also feel guys’ pain in this — and, frankly, to be heard, you do have to listen first. You can’t have true communication until both sides are listening.
Isn’t that unfair? That women have to listen first? Of course it is, but how can men listen if we don’t listen first?
Sexism and racism are complicated. Modern men are beyond simple outright sexism. But what holds women back now is much more subtle and difficult to define. We need to be able to hold it to the light, and to do that, we need dialog that runs both directions, not just to be heard.
In the words of John Glenn in the movie: “It’s hard to trust something you can’t look in the eyes.”
Men need more male feminist role models
The women in Hidden Figures are amazing role models for the way to remain strong against adversity, to hold true to your natural gifts, to gracefully navigate a male-dominated world. Women and girls need role models to learn how to act — as strong, intelligent women.
Just as women need strong role models for how to feel strong in the world, men need them too — as courageous champions for equality.
And we need not to be afraid to recognize when those men use their power to act courageously for equality.
This is not about giving men yet more attention. It is about giving men attention they deserve — and the effect that that attention has on the boys and men who watch the movie. This is not just a women’s movie. It is an inspiring movie with role models for all of us.
The women were center stage. The male champions were the hidden figures in this movie.
(In the spirit of the recent Women’s March, and the men behind the women who supported us. Thank you, men! You can’t change your gender, but you can make a difference.)