What Has The Film Hidden Figures Taught Us About NASA in the 1950s and 60s?


Facing the outbreak of another World War in the late 1930s, there was an intense thrust to advance the United States aeronautical programs. During this period the number of employed female personnel exploded. Hidden Figures is the true portrayal of three African-American women who were blended into a predominately male staff, performing mathematical calculations by hand to relieve the burden on the engineers.

These women were a vital component to the future of the program and started to expose the hiring practices of the United States industry wide. While NASA was clearly open to crossing the once unmentioned gender and color barrier for the predominately male specialized workforce, it would take decades before a true sense of gender and racial equality would materialize.

Equal Hire, But Not Equal Pay

Hiring of qualified females actually started before NASA was formally established. Early in 1915 the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was formed. This was the government agency responsible for all the highly-sensitive aeronautical research in the United States.

In 1935, the NACA hired five women to be part of the first computer data team. Pay equality still stirs heated debates today, but there was an even more profound disparity in the late 1930s. Women were employed as an integral part of a computer science team for pennies on the dollar compared to white males.

The original NASA motive for gender equality was for the economic benefits. Although the June 1941 executive order signed by President Franklin Roosevelt banned discrimination based on race, creed, color, or national origin, the mandate did nothing to address a profound inequality in pay. NASA, like most major industries, took advantage of the loophole.

Equality in Hiring, But Not Beyond

Although the concept of gender equality and fairness towards women in the workplace was far from becoming part of openly acceptable conversation, Hidden Figures accurately portrayed NASA's blindness to gender. The plot stays primarily focused on Katherine Johnson, but it also follows the lives of two other important women working at NASA during this time.

Dorothy Vaughn was one of the NASA's first female computer specialists, hired during World War II. Johnson did become the first women to hold a supervisory role at NASA, but another prominent hidden figure was Mary Jackson. With two degrees in both math and physical science, Jackson was an important, although unheralded person in the US aeronautical programs.

During her career, Vaughn was proof that while NASA hired qualified female engineers, climbing the executive ladder was an arduous task for women. Mary Jackson struggled herself in the 1950s to advance her career. She was hired in 1950 to work in the computer science division at Langley Air Force Base, and it was while she was working there that Kazimierz Czarnecki, a senior research engineer, urged Jackson to become an engineer herself. She attended classes after work and won an appeal to attend classes along with the other white students. In 1958, Jackson earned a promotion to engineer, making her the first African-American female to hold such a significant status at NASA. For most of their careers, Vaughn and Jackson were the only two women to hold such positions of importance at NASA.

The aeronautics program of the United States represented a superficial openness to unbiased hiring practices based on gender and racial equality. By limiting the inability of these women to advance their careers, it proved the agency was giving little more than lip service to the idea. It was as if NASA understood the importance of bringing the brightest minds on board, race and gender notwithstanding, but it was still governed by the entrenched ideology that America was a white male dominated society, especially in the world aeronautics.

Jackson and Vaughn clearly separated themselves from the staff of engineers, but both struggled to obtain opportunities to advance. These women were truly Hidden Figures since their contributions were vital, but clearly; NASA's desire to promote them, or give them their rightful public acknowledgment, was not.

Although NASA brought some of the most intelligent and innovative minds into the fold for decades, they still lived under the prejudicial pretense that the show should be run by predominately white males. Hidden Figures allows us to view how NASA viewed gender and racial fairness, through the eyes of 21st century equality.

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