The room was full of some of the smartest people in the world. Actual rocket scientists. Their job: put a man on the moon before the Russians.
These were the aerospace engineers who made up the Guidance and Control Unit of NASA’s Flight Research Division. This brilliant team of scientists just happened to be composed exclusively of white men. That is, until Katherin Johnson joined the team.
Today, Katherine Johnson is a well known name, made more famous by Margot Lee Shetterl’s book-turned-movie, Hidden Figures. Johnson’s story is full of challenges she faced as both a woman and a Black American in what had, up to that point, been a white male space. She champions through all of the adversity and is a major part of accomplishing the team’s mission and saving the day.
Katherine Johnson’s story highlights, among other things, the impact of recruiting diverse perspectives. Hers was “not just an act of personal bravery; Johnson was blazing a trail.”Tweet
Prior to Johnson joining the team, the Flight Research Division did not lack intellect. What they lacked was a varied perspective. The closed door behind which the team had worked prior to adding Johnson had limited the perspectives and in turn had limited the diversity of thought. They could only see one way to solve problems. This is not bad, per se, but it is certainly limited. And when one is stuck, the worst thing to do would be to stay behind that closed door. This happens in workplaces all the time. Groups suffer from “groupthink” and are only able to see a limited perspective of a problem or situation. A diverse workforce brings diverse perspectives to the table.
As Davod Rock and Heidi Grant put it in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “nonhomogenous teams are simply smarter. Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance”, (Rock and Grant, 2016). They cite a McKinzie studied that aligned diversity with greater performance outcomes. Companies in the “top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean”.
Diverse perspectives allow for diverse solutions. Innovation is impossible when thinking becomes rigid.Rigidity will get you passed up. There is a poignant moment in the film when Al Harrisoon takes the work of Katherine Johnson and puts it in the trash, explaining that the work she had just finished was now out of date – a demonstration of how quickly the field was advancing.
Different lived experiences allow the same problem to be viewed from a different lens. Different perspectives of the problem allow for different proposals, new and creative solutions and, ultimately, a higher chance at success.
Companies in the “top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean”.Tweet
Humans are tribal creatures by nature. Whether it is middle school Black children sitting together in the lunchroom, college students joining affinity groups, or all the orchestra kids gathering at the local coffee shop, humans look for safety in similarity. Imagine what it must have felt like for Johnson to sit in some of those rooms as the only Black person and the only woman. She entered these rooms in the late 1950s with the backdrop of Emmet Till’s murder, the Mongomery Bus Boycott, and the Brown vs. Board of Education. Though NASA had begun to hire Black “computers,” they had their own room in which they worked and their own cafeteria in which they ate.
This was not just an act of personal bravery; Johnson was blazing a trail.
As Johnson moved her way through the organization, she made it possible and even more comfortable for other women and other people of color to have a seat at the table. The presence of diverse staff at every level of the organization sends a message that diversity is something the organization values. It is more than simply the presence of diversity. The organization must listen to and value all of the diverse voices represented in the organization. In 1960, Katherine Johnson co-authored a paper with an engineer, Ted Skopinski, and became the first woman in her division to have her name on a peer reviewed scientific paper.
As organizations become more of global competitors, it is of the utmost importance that diversity, across all of the vectors of identity, be a central part of the vision. Diversity brings multiple perspectives to the discussion of a problem, and to innovation in the creation of a solution. A diverse and inclusive environment helps recruit and retain the best talent in order to get the job done. And by the way, there is an ethical imperative at play here. Bring people in, make sure they feel like they belong.
Diversity is important. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.
“Diversity is important. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.” Hidden Impact: The Importance of Diversity in the Workplace via #BedrockEduTweet