What We Can Learn About Diversity From 'Hidden Figures'

Theatrical Release Photo

Hidden Figures

Theatrical Release Photo

Georgene Huang
Georgene Huang

If the cold weather has been keeping you indoors, you may want to check out the movie "Hidden Figures". The new film is performing well at the box office, and is based on the true story of three African-American women who defied expectations for their work during the early 1960s in NASA space program. At one point, Taraji P. Henson’s character Katherine Johnson says: “Yes, they let women do some things at NASA...and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.”

Henson plays the role of a mathematical genius who calculates the orbit for NASA’s first launch of an astronaut into space. But at NASA, she isn’t called Ms. Johnson or Katherine by her colleagues: she’s simply referred to as a “computer.”

This was one of Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, Chief Diversity Officer of IBM's favorite moments in the movie. Of course, the film also features actual computers: IBM mainframes, to be specific. To bridge the history of women in STEM with the present day experience of women in tech, I spoke to McIntyre, about the situation for women in tech and STEM today, and the ways that IBM tries to recruit and retain women. IBM is one of the top-rated companies for women by those in the Fairygodboss community, so I was particularly interested in McIntyre’s perspective on diversity and inclusion.

Originally from Canada and a former teacher for the deaf, McIntyre is a mother of three young children (all born abroad) and has worked with IBM in multiple countries and roles. She loves her work because she personally believes that diversity drives innovation.

When we discussed the decline in the number of women studying computer science today, McIntyre told me that she believes “role models are incredibly important” to girls and young women in tech. She also believes there is a need to constantly invest in the pipeline, something IBM does by supporting EXCITE (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) camps, summer camps and schools for girls to learn and be inspired to pursue math and science.

McIntyre is particularly proud of IBM’s Tech Re-entry program, an adult-style internship designed to help women who have left temporarily left their jobs to  ease back into the workplace. Launched this year, it follows IBM’s adoption of a concierge-style breast milk delivery service for travelling moms, launched in 2015. These two distinct programs specifically support women at IBM, but McIntyre describes overall “culture as the glue” holding these programs together. She believes that standalone programs will likely fail to create diverse and inclusive workplaces without an underlying, supportive culture.

Culture, of course, is a difficult thing to measure. And while cultural DNA can often be described in corporate mission statements, McIntyre says it is the “unspoken things” that make culture come to life. Seeing managers leave at 3 p.m. for soccer games and colleagues supported when they take their full maternity and paternity leaves indicates that a policy is more than just something that “looks nice on paper.”

Hidden Figures is a great movie, with lots of moments of levity around women of color defying just about every racial and gender stereotype. It’s also a film that illustrates that the whole team matters -- a lot --  for any organization. Hopefully, lots of young, future astronauts and mathematicians who see the movie will one day work at a company that is as supportive of them as IBM is trying to be for women in the workplace.

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.


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