Reading Hidden Figures: Race and Gender in the Workplace
November 29, 2018 | Maredith Sheridan
Some of the best Books@Work books spur conversations about what it means to be human. These books shed light on universal issues: family, work, identity, relationships and more. But sometimes, a good Books@Work book resonates with a group because it seems to exist specifically and solely for them. One such book is Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures.
Hidden Figures tells the nonfiction story of three African-American female mathematicians who operates as “human computers” at NASA during the Space Race. The women endured racial discrimination and gender barriers, often receiving little or no credit for their extraordinary contributions. These themes prompt discussions about a variety of unique issues facing Books@Work participants in the workplace.
For most of our female participants, Hidden Figures encouraged open dialogue about the realities of being a woman in the working world. A female participant in a group of faculty and administrators at a large research university appreciated the opportunity to tackle these experiences head-on:
“That conversation really resonated with me as there were a lot of women who talked about how things have changed for women in the workplace. It was was a sort of ‘we are all in this together’ kind of conversation. Professionally and personally – as I’m a working mother – I don’t typically talk about family life and that kind of stuff in work settings. So it was nice to be my whole self in the space.”
In another Books@Work group of teachers and administrators at an all-girls school, Hidden Figures was a perfect vehicle to connect over shared experience and gain new insight. One participant noted how the book prompted genuine conversation about female colleagues of color.
“Hearing from the women who are minorities in our community provided so much insight,” she said. “Racial prejudices that were seldom questioned [in the book] stimulated discussion about what attitudes we are currently accepting without question [in the school].” She emphasized how the women in the room shared opinions without judgment.
The book’s focus on women in a male-dominated field also resonated with our female participants, many of whom work in manufacturing or other STEM careers. “While reading Hidden Figures, a female engineer of color recounted how during her interview for her current position on campus, a white male interviewer asked incredulously, ‘You have a masters in engineering?’” said one participant. “It was an unsettling reminder that unfair prejudicial attitudes exist even among the educated – who, I’d always thought, would know better.”
Professor Laura Baudot of Oberlin College facilitated discussion about Hidden Figures in two different Books@Work groups. Her observations sum up how the book allowed women to connect and reflect about their shared experiences:
“Hearing women talk very frankly about roads not taken, or compromises or sacrifices they made were really interesting, powerful moments. [Participants could] address each other’s humanity as people with pasts that have not necessarily been all happy and rosy and one clear success path.”
But the book also encouraged the women to acknowledge and grapple with where their experiences have diverged, especially along racial lines. Baudot shared:
“One participant said, ‘I think about my family during the Jim Crow period and right after. They could not just walk into the bathroom without worrying about what would happen.’ This was not something the white participants could share at all. It was an intense moment, where the participants realized not everyone has the same kind of challenges as a woman in the workplace.”
Hidden Figures has been a particularly successful platform for necessary conversations about potentially divisive topics like race and gender. But with a strong narrative and dynamic characters, colleagues find common ground and broaden their world views with respect and dignity.
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Image: Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Space Modulator Experiment, Aluminum 5, 1931, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org
Maredith Sheridan is a Development Communications Associate at the Cleveland Orchestra and a part-time member of the Books@Work team. She continues to write posts for our blog.