From Hidden Figure to Executive Leader

The movie “Hidden Figures” raised our awareness of the workplace dynamic and reality for many whose talents and contributions were unrecognized due to racism and unconscious bias.  The inequity of being a Hidden Figure makes it no less alarming or necessary to address.

At the 2017 Grace Hopper Conference, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on the topic of Hidden Figures. This caused me to reflect upon my own experience as a Hidden Figure and my journey towards becoming a business executive. I walked away recognizing how prevalent this issue is and how some of the best talent is not being fully acknowledged and utilized every day.

How do you know you’re a Hidden Figure?

A Hidden Figure is someone who experiences a bias because of the color of their skin, gender, language, religion, nationality, just to name a few. So how does this manifest in the workplace?

  • They are not included in key meetings or social gatherings where often key information is shared or exchanged;
  • They are not included in decision making;
  • Their input or expertise is not sought or considered;
  • Their contributions are not embraced or recognized.

A Hidden Figure has to do more to overcome biases and stereotypes because people often make assumptions about them before they can prove and demonstrate their value. In other words, they can’t bring their whole selves into the workplace.

I have felt like a Hidden Figure.  Navigating in high tech corporations as an African American female hasn’t always been easy.  I have worked for companies whose core values include respect for diversity and inclusion, which is very important to me. However, I encountered individuals, who do not uphold these core values.  So, I was faced with how to manage these situations.

Early in my career I applied for financial sponsorship from my company to enroll in an MBA program. I was qualified. My direct manager thought I was qualified and supported me. However, the next level decision-making executive denied my request. When I met with him to discuss my request which he denied, he couldn’t explain the reason for denying my request. A few years later, executive management changed, and I applied again. I was approved. I never gave up. I learned that resilience and tenacity breaks through even the toughest of barriers. I also learned the importance of having supportive leadership and sponsors, who recognize my potential.

I have experienced that awkward feeling of being the only one of my kind in the room. I have been in situations where I spoke up in meetings and no one listened or another person would repeat the same comment and get acknowledged. I missed out on being invited to the table for key discussions, attending parties and social gatherings where decision makers were discussing pertinent information for work and building relationships that transfer into the workplace – these things matter… a lot. This led me to feeling isolated and created a reinforcing cycle that made me feel less likely to contribute.

Today, I am a senior executive and over the years, I pushed through many barriers in the work place. I don’t have to force my way into conversations; in fact, I am sought out for my opinions or perspectives. It feels great to be valued and to have a sense of belonging. This is what employees who are hidden figures long for. I work with executives to ensure a strong culture of inclusion which enables our employees to bring their entire selves, ideas, experiences and talents to Lenovo. It is good for the employees and it is good for Lenovo. It makes us more creative, innovative and a stronger company.

Key Tips for Hidden Figures:

I feel a credibility and responsibility to share the lessons I’ve learned along the way with others who may be Hidden Figures too. Here are a few tips:

  • It is their issue…not yours. Don’t let your star be diminished because of someone else’s bias.
  • Create and leverage your team who can support, counsel and be our advocate.
  • Create a teachable moment when you see or experience conscious or unconscious bias.
  • Have support systems outside of the workplace – trusted family or friends who can lift you up, no matter what.
  • And finally, don’t give up. Find ways to turn being a victim to becoming a victor.

Leave a Reply