“Hidden Figures” as a Workplace Drama

The real Katherine Johnson of "Hidden Figures" at work in 1966. Photo courtesy of NASA.

If you were as wowed by the film and book Hidden Figures as I was, you probably want to read/see it again. Next time around, I plan to focus on the workplace aspect, which director Theodore Melfi brilliantly highlights in the movie. Amid a sea of white men in white shirts, we see Taraji P. Henson as mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, the sole woman and sole black person — a vivid visual depiction. There are many more such workplace stories to tell, as author Margot Lee Shetterly indicates on her website: “For me, growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the face of science was brown like mine. My dad was a NASA lifer, a career Langley Research Center scientist who became an internationally respected climate expert. Five of my father’s seven siblings were engineers or technologists. My father’s best friend was an aeronautical engineer. Our next door neighbor was a physics professor. There were mathematicians at our church, sonic boom experts in my mother’s sorority and electrical engineers in my parents’ college alumni associations. There were also black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors and contractors, black shoe repair owners, wedding planners, real estate agents and undertakers, the occasional black lawyer and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African-Americans working in science, math and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.”

I was further delighted to learn that Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly is the granddaughter-in-law of Robert B. Shetterly (1915-1997), a long-time CEO and Chairman of The Clorox Company. I had the privilege of writing about Bob Shetterly in the company’s 2013 centennial book and was most impressed by his social conscience. Fortunately he had given long interviews to oral historians in the 1980s. Thank goodness for oral histories! In them he described how he kept Clorox in Oakland, CA (the city where it was founded in 1913) when other corporations were fleeing to the suburbs. Shetterly firmly believed that “a corporation has a social responsibility, especially in its home town but also everywhere it operates. This stems both from a selfish motive — we want our employees to be happy where they are — but also from an obligation to society in general.” He was instrumental in the company’s support for the East Oakland Youth Development Center, a commitment that continues. EOYDC’s Executive Director Regina Jackson said of Robert Shetterly in 2010: “He pulled people together to change things. He wasn’t somebody who just talked the talk. He walked the walk and he made others walk it, too.”