NASA's Real Life 'Hidden Figure' On How To Advance Women In STEM
“There are so many women that are capable, smart, sharp and good at what they do. What they are lacking is the opportunity to sit across the table from the other minds that are coming up with the innovative solutions,” says Dr. Christyl Johnson, NASA’s Deputy Director for Technology and Research Investments.
Dr. Johnson joined NASA in the summer of 1985 and over the years she has dedicated her efforts to support young women in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.)
Described as a ‘modern figure’ Dr. Johnson is regularly likened to the characters in the movie Hidden Figures. The film portrays the experience of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson - three talented African-American women - who worked at NASA Langley in 1961.
The movie tackles important issues like institutional racism and sexism. Dr. Johnson says it highlights the importance of diversity in innovation. “If anyone wants to make leaps and advances in their organization it is paramount that they bring different perspectives to the table,” she says.
In this interview, Dr. Johnson shares the lessons she has learned throughout her career at NASA and how each of us can support the advancement of women in STEM.
Michelle King: Do you see yourself in the movie Hidden Figures?
Dr. Johnson: Although things have significantly improved at NASA since the times represented in Hidden Figures, I too have experienced similar struggles with racism and sexism. I resonate with the women in the movie because I see them as strong African American women who were determined to succeed despite their circumstances. That determination is what has gotten me to where I am today. NASA has identified me as a ‘modern figure’, so I hope that I and the other 'modern figures' continue to inspire our young girls to see themselves in that movie, and in STEM careers.
King: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in your career as a woman in STEM?
Dr. Johnson: One of the biggest challenges I have had as a woman in STEM is breaking into the “boys network.” For many years at NASA, and other scientific organizations the makeup has been mostly white males. Even when women bring unique solutions to the table, it can take twice as much work for them to gain the respect of their male counterparts. I can recall being in meetings and asking a question only to have the male answering the question look at the other males in the room while answering my question.
I am fortunate that NASA has been at the forefront of supporting women in technical fields, as shown in the movie Hidden Figures. With the support of some of my male and female mentors, I have grown and blossomed at NASA. With all of that said, we still have a little way to go for women to have an equal seat at the table. Not only do the appropriate organizational policies need to be in place, but appropriate, respectful behavior must be the norm – starting with the leadership at the top.
King: How do we ensure that women have an equal seat at the table?
Dr. Johnson: We need to make sure women have high visibility assignments. So many times you hear people say that, 'We didn't have any good women candidates.' Even if we were to have diverse selection panels to ensure fairness in the selection process, you can’t hire women if they have not had those high-profile assignments that show their leadership capability.
When men give their friends these unique high-profile opportunities, it sets them up for future promotions, so we need to make sure women are afforded those opportunities as well. Making sure that our women get the right kind of exposure, assignments, experience and training for these positions is very critical.
King: Why does NASA feel it is important to attract more female engineers and scientists?
Dr. Johnson: When you have an impossible goal or objectives that is extremely hard to accomplish, you have to look for innovation anywhere you can find it. We understand all too well and work hard to avoid uniform groupthink. If you have a group composed of people with similar backgrounds, similar life experiences, and similar training, you tend to get similar solutions for your challenges.
It is only when you are able to bring 'out of the box' thinking, new experiences, and fresh approaches to the table that you make revolutionary changes or create innovative solutions. NASA understands that the best way to innovate is to have the most diverse minds at the table.
King: What advice would you give your younger self. When you were just starting out your career in STEM?
Dr. Johnson: One of the most important things that you can do is not try to go through life as an island. Do not to suffer in silence if you are experiencing things that are not right in the workplace or if you are not getting the support that you need.
Networking is one of the most important things you can do. Engaging with other women and men (who have a track record of supporting women) is very important. These people can help you walk around land mines that are going to exist and they will open doors for you that you could never open for yourself. You go so much further, so much faster in life, if you don’t try to do it alone.