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Statement by EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon on Women's History Month March 2020

Post from Chair Janet Dhillon - March 2020

"I don't have a feeling of inferiority. I'm as good as anybody."

Born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, "Hidden Figure" Katherine Johnson came of age at a time when all the signs around her told her she was inferior because of her gender and her race. However, her agile mind would not be confined by the expectations or the limitations set by others. At an early age, she displayed a prodigious intellect which was cultivated and encouraged by her teachers who recognized her gift; and she finished high school at 14. While attending the historically black West Virginia State College, Johnson exhausted all the math courses the school had to offer. So, her professors and mentors nurtured her genius-level aptitude and developed math courses especially for her. She excelled and graduated summa cum laude with degrees in math and French when she was 18.

Beginning her career as a teacher, Johnson earned a graduate math degree from West Virginia University - the first African American woman to attend that program. In 1953, she got a job as a mathematician with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) - the precursor to NASA - at the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia. At first, she worked in a pool of women performing math calculations. "Computers in skirts," they were called - the term "computers" in those days usually being used for human geniuses whose brainpower was more than a match for the electronic contraptions of the day.

Her own section was the "colored" computer pool. In accordance with Virginia racial segregation laws, as well as federal workplace segregation practices, Johnson and the other black women in the pool were required to work, eat and use restrooms that were separate from those of their white peers.

Johnson, however, said that she simply ignored racial and gender barriers. One day, she and a colleague were temporarily assigned to help the all-male flight research team. Johnson's knowledge of analytic geometry helped make quick allies of male bosses and colleagues, and, as she said, "they forgot to return me to the pool."

As NACA evolved into NASA, Johnson kept expanding her expertise and indispensability to the space program. From 1958 on, she worked as an aerospace technologist, and it was in that capacity that she calculated the trajectory and launch window for the May 5, 1961 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. She also plotted backup navigation charts for astronauts in case of electronic failures.

By the time John Glenn was set to take his spin around the planet in February 1962, Katherine Johnson was already a well-known, essential member of the space program team. NASA was using electronic computers for the first time to calculate Glenn's orbit, but the astronaut asked for Johnson specifically - and refused to fly unless she personally verified the numbers. "If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go."

As Hidden Figures author and Johnson biographer Margot Lee Shetterly recounted, "So the astronaut who became a hero looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success." She added that this took place at a time when engineering and most other STEM endeavors were a male preserve, and that women's work was generally discounted.

Johnson continued her brilliant labors for the space program until her 1986 retirement, including calculating the trajectory for Apollo 11, the first moon landing, in 1969. She also worked on the Space Shuttle program, the Earth Resources Satellite, and on plans for a mission to Mars.

And yet, John Glenn's go-to woman and her trailblazing colleagues, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, were not accorded the fame they deserved until Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, and, the next year, the movie Hidden Figures showed their story to the world.

Often, women's contributions have been ignored, undervalued - and/or underpaid. That's where the EEOC comes in. We are committed to enforcing Title VII's provisions against sex discrimination, and the Equal Pay Act, and to advancing equal opportunity for all in the workplace. Unfortunately, as with other forms of discrimination, as gender bias still persists, we have work to do.

Katherine Johnson, this quiet hero, died at age 101 on February 24. The best way to pay tribute to that legacy during Women's History Month is to make sure that all American talent is nurtured and encouraged - and never disrespected and disregarded because of gender.

As Johnson noted, "Girls are capable of doing everything that men are capable of doing."