Last week I saw the movie Hidden Figures. Have you seen it? I highly recommend it. The movie highlights three African-American women in the 1950’s who worked at NASA. Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Katherine Johnson were NASA Computers. Before the invention and use of modern computers, humans did all the calculations for space missions and were called Computers. These three women worked in the all-black West Area Computing section of NASA. The movie showcases their ability to handle massive mathematical challenges. In the end, Katherine Johnson figured out the advanced math needed to safely launch and return the first manned space missions, including Alan Shepard’s Mercury mission in 1961 and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 orbit around Earth in 1962.

The movie highlights the challenges and discrimination Jackson, Vaughan, and Johnson faced as African Americans and as women. It is heart-wrenching to watch.

After watching the movie it is easy to leave feeling grateful that we don’t live in that era anymore. To scoff at the separate bathrooms for whites and “coloreds.”  But, be careful. We have thankfully moved past separate bathrooms, but racism still affects every problem on this planet we are trying to solve. In the movie, the NASA Computer Jackson, Vaughan, and Johnson as well as the other African-American women experienced intense discrimination. Some of it was institutional discrimination such as separate bathrooms, but some of it was personal between the employees. One of the other characters was Paul Stafford, a head engineer at NASA who was white. Stafford treated Katherine Johnson with disrespect and contempt. It was clear he was threatened by her abilities and could not see past her race and gender. This type of personal discrimination silences creativity every day.

Before watching the movie I didn’t know the stories of these three women, but their stories were not unfamiliar either. I know the discrimination they felt has been experienced by hundreds of thousands of people of color and women around the world. As a human species, we all have suffered due to past discrimination in the U.S. and throughout the world. I’m not talking about people’s feelings (although those do matter, but that’s a different topic). I mean, we have lost creative potential and genius because we were so caught up in our different skin colors, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and other identities. I don’t mean to say our identities are unimportant. What I mean is that when you are trying to create the ability for humans to travel to space, getting caught up in differences hinders the results. Instead allowing team members of all identities to bring their full selves to the project, along with their expertise, opinions, and skills, will lead to a more effective and creative outcome. The overt racism of the 1950’s and 1960’s may not be as present today, but the hidden, subtle discrimination is present and affects all of us, whether we realize it or not. It particularly affects our creativity and collective human potential.

While the movie Hidden Figures is about space travel, the issue of silenced creativity applies to every problem. What problem are you trying to solve? Are you working to protect the environment, end bullying in schools, expand alternative energy sources, coach leaders to live with integrity, or teach kids math and science? How might you or others you work with be inadvertently silencing your colleagues’ creativity?

Weekly Challenge

I believe the desire to contribute, to express our creativity and intelligence, and to be part of something bigger than ourselves runs deep in our human psyche. I challenge you to pay attention to your own behavior and how you might inadvertently be creating an environment where some people are silenced. Here are three things you might notice this week:
  1. In conversations, particularly in team meetings, are you always the first to talk? After you share your opinions are others quiet? How might you listen more and change your approach to generate more sharing and voices within your team?
  2. Have you found yourself in situations where you didn’t notice a particular person was present? Pay attention and notice if this is a pattern. If so, you may be unconsciously ignoring someone because of their identity. People of color, women, and people with disabilities report this happening to them. Be sure you are not perpetuating that scenario.
  3. As humans we have an uncanny ability to rationalize nearly anything. This sometimes gets us in trouble. Pay attention to assumptions you have about colleagues. How do your assumptions affect the way you treat your colleagues? In what ways might your assumptions be negatively impacting the team? What changes can you make?

The weekly challenge is a way for you to step back and observe yourself. Then you can see what adjustments you might make to create a more equitable, more inclusive, and more creative environment at work. More creativity leads to more innovation and more problems solved. Good luck out there!

I’d love to hear what you notice and learn. Leave a comment below to share with me and others. Thank you!