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What Can Hidden Figures Teach Us About Workplace Diversity?

26/02/2017 14:38 GMT | Updated 26/02/2017 14:40 GMT
Alberto E. Rodriguez via Getty Images

Before this movie, I had no idea that so many women had participated in NASA, nor did I know that black women had contributed so significantly to America's advances in the 'space race'.

The movie's title says it all. Factually, Hidden Figures identified the three black females who shaped an industry, these women were previously hidden from us, which starts to explain why this was news to a large proportion of the audience viewing it.

It's no accident that this movie has had over 70 award nominations, including nominations in this year's Golden Globes and the Oscars. It's also unsurprising that it has scooped 27 of these awards so far, in fact it's bang on time. To me this identifies two crucial things I've always believed in; firstly the value of diversity and secondly to never underestimate the value of a visible role model.

This movie's narrative was different and whether audiences will admit it or not; black women and tech, is different. It's different to the other roles and stories we have gotten used to see black female actresses play, it was a refreshing and inspiring story about three black women who achieved incredible things. This narrative is different to those we are so often exposed to on a multitude of media platforms.

Note, the key word is 'difference' also known as 'diversity' - that buzzword and political hot potato we've all heard a lot lately. That is diversity in terms of social demographic, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and so on.

This movie proved to me that we need to do more to find difference and celebrate it. Diversity breeds success, it drives innovation, competition and ultimately reveals better stories.

One of the most telling scenes in the movie for me is when Katherine G. Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, returns home from a long shift at the NASA space centre. She is presented with a drawing drawn by one of her daughters, seeing Katherine depicted inside a space rocket.

Because her mum worked at NASA and worked hard at NASA, a career in the sector became attainable, an option. It appeared normal to the little girl to draw her mum positioned inside the rocket, because her mum's very existence in this world made her aware it was a possibility.

In the UK, we don't shine our torches enough on the diverse figures that contribute to our STEM sector, as well as creative industries. More also needs to be done to attract, retain and develop these individuals. There is something seriously wrong with this picture.

I know first-hand the power of a visible role model. As a child I remember the first time I recognised that Journalism was an option for me. It was when I saw journalists Moira Stewart and Sir Trevor McDonald read the news.

I must have been less than ten-years-old and I remember thinking, 'wow, they are black' not because I'd never seen a black person before, but because I'd never seen a black person read the news before. I remember thinking, 'I wonder if I can do that?' I saw this visible representation as an indication of options.

It's not simply about creating more visible role models and solving all the issues regarding diversity and inclusion within the workforce, because that wouldn't be enough. And I know first hand the long list of issues that demonstrate the lack of inclusiveness across all our sectors. But it certainly wouldn't hurt.

At the screening of Hidden Figures in celebration of women in tech at IBM this week, in answer to a question regarding why it has taken so long to discover, Caroline Taylor, CMO, IBM Global Markets replied: "Because the day after the first rocket went out nobody spoke about it."So let's talk about it.

In science and tech, we have come a long way in 40 years since the days of the 'space race'. But in the workplace and in industry not enough real commitment and accountability is in place to attract a wider pool of diverse and previously hidden talent. And once attracted and hired, not enough is being done to allow that diverse talent to thrive and flourish in cultures that make them feel included.

40 years later there are still some 'giant leaps' to come in the workplace, the benefits in innovation, creativity and excellence will be incalculable for individuals, families, communities, companies, the economy and nation as a whole. I'm committed to seeing that change happen in this generation.

Joanna Abeyie is the founder and director of Hyden Talent