The Remarkable Life of 'Hidden Figure' Katherine Johnson — and Its Lessons for Talent Leaders

February 27, 2020

NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is photographed at work at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980.

The sky was never the limit for Katherine Johnson.

Instead, it was merely the starting point, the playground for a 33-year career as a brilliant mathematician for NASA, where she helped put astronauts into space, into orbit, and ultimately on the moon.

Katherine, one of the cohort of African American women portrayed in the best-selling book and blockbuster 2016 movie “Hidden Figures,” died this week at 101. Actress Taraji Henson, who played Katherine in the movie, wrote on Instagram: “You ran so we could fly!!!”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella posted on LinkedIn: “Katherine Johnson will be remembered as a skilled mathematician and pioneer in her industry, but to me and many others, she will be remembered not just for her contributions to the early years of the space program, but for how she helped NASA evolve into a more enlightened organization. Her legacy is a powerful example of how one individual can act as a catalyst for change and drive meaningful impact in their organization and in society broadly. ”

As Black History Month nears its end in the United States and Canada, it’s worth considering Katherine’s remarkable journey. For HR leaders, her story underscores that the business case for diversity isn’t just about driving more revenue and profitability; it’s about accomplishing things that right now you’re only dreaming of. For recruiters, her story is a reminder of how critical a single hire can be and how a truly exceptional employee by necessity can’t be like everyone who already works for you.

The business case for diversity is about more than revenue and profit

Diversity is good for the bottom line. A growing library of research, including work from respected sources such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bersin by Deloitte, shows that diversity drives revenue growth and profitability.

But not many organizations have crafted a vision statement that says, “Make more money.” Most companies want to have a larger impact — to create a transformative product, to deliver service that transcends customer expectations, to be known as the very best at what they do.

NASA’s goal wasn’t to make money; it was, instead, to fulfill U.S. President John Kennedy’s stated ambition of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

Studies show that organizations that can leverage the many perspectives of a diverse workforce are more creative, more innovative, and more capable of problem-solving. Katherine’s work — precise, meticulous, and often done with little more than a pencil and slide rule — was critical to both parts of JFK’s vision, the getting an astronaut to the moon and the getting him back safely.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Related: Michelle Obama Shares the Key to Diverse Hiring

––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Katherine joined NASA (then called the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) in 1953 and was shortly thereafter borrowed by the agency’s elite Flight Research Division, where she stayed for the rest of her career. She quickly proved indispensable.

She did groundbreaking work on orbital mechanics that was instrumental to the success of the early U.S. space program. When astronaut John Glenn was nearing the launch that would make him the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, he asked that his planned orbital trajectory — calculated on an early IBM computer — be cross-checked by Katherine. “If she says the numbers are good,” he said, “I’m ready to go.”

Your next hire could be ‘a catalyst for change’

Beyond the stellar mathematical work Katherine did for the space program, she also changed the trajectory of work at NASA for both women and people of color, often quite intentionally, but not always so.

When Katherine arrived at Langley, the cafeteria had already been desegregated but the bathrooms had not. While the bathrooms for African American employees were all marked by signs, the bathrooms for white employees were not. Katherine — being well-grounded in geometry —used the bathroom nearest her desk. She initially had no idea that it was reserved for white women. By the time she realized her “error,” she was not inclined to change her ways.

More typically, she was clear-sighted about the changes she was helping to bring about. For example, Katherine was intensely curious about the technology that underlay NASA’s work and she asked her engineering colleagues why she wasn’t allowed to attend scientific briefings.

“Girls” weren’t allowed, she was told. “Is there a law against it?” she replied. It turned out there wasn’t and her quiet persistence won out. Katherine and other women gained access to the agency’s briefings.

In the early days of the space race, as the United States played catch-up to the Soviet program, Katherine worked with space engineer Ted Skopinski to determine how to calculate the trajectory of an orbital flight.

Her findings were outlined in a 1960 paper. Skopinski said: “Katherine should finish the report. She’s done most of the work anyway.” (Their work was so good that at one point the program actually worried about capsules actually hitting the U.S. Navy ships sent to retrieve them.)

It was the first time a woman had authored a technical report for NASA’s Flight Research Division. She would write or co-write another 25 reports before her retirement in 1986.

Katherine was hired to be, as she said, a computer who wore skirts. She was not brought on to make NASA “a more enlightened organization.” But that’s exactly what she did, with a gracious yet determined insistence that she merited being in the room where it happened.

Final thoughts: Continue to look for potential over pedigree

Katherine Johnson did not have a doctorate or a diploma from an elite school, yet she was NASA’s go-to mathematician for trajectory calculations. Even she, however, might have had a difficult time calculating or even imagining her own trajectory.

Nearly a century after being born in a West Virginia town that only provided African Americans with education through the eighth grade, Katherine received the Presidential Medal of Honor (2015) from Barack Obama and was present when NASA dedicated the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia (2017).

She helped men reach the stars; now she inspires STEM-loving girls everywhere to reach for them. Her example can also remind talent acquisition professionals to value potential over pedigree and to seek out those candidates whose grit, confidence, curiosity, and humility (“I am as good as anyone else,” Katherine said, “but no better”) makes them think of the unforgettable woman, no longer hidden, who passed away on Monday.

“They asked Katherine Johnson for the moon,” The New York Times noted, “and she gave it to them.”

To receive blog posts like this one straight in your inbox, subscribe to the blog newsletter.

*Photo from NASA

Topics