HEADQUARTERS, NAVAL AIR SYSTEMS COMMAND, PATUXENT RIVER, Md. —Taking the time to infuse diversity and inclusion into a workplace culture can reveal some hidden opportunities, senior leaders told employees at a diversity panel discussion here June 20.

The discussion, entitled “Hidden Opportunities,” was focused on the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly and the subsequent 2016 movie of the same name, which uncovers the story of black female mathematicians whose work at NASA helped shape space exploration in the 1960s. Employees were encouraged to read the book and/or watch the movie, then attend a national panel discussion, hosted by NAVAIR’s Women’s Advisory Group’s (WAG) Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Educational Outreach Sub-Team, to share their views and suggestions on diversity and inclusion at NAVAIR.

“The WAG wants to start conversations about women in the workplace,” said WAG member Theresa Shafer. “Even though it was 60 years ago, there are a lot of lessons we can extrapolate today.”

One of those lessons was the impact of bullying, said Linda Mullen, a senior science and technology manager in the Avionics Department.

“There was a fundamental theme to stand up for what you believe in,” she said, alluding to the female mathematicians overcoming stereotypes and biases in a career field largely dominated by white men.

For Martin Ahmad, deputy commander for Fleet Readiness Centers, Operations for Logistics and Industrial Command, and a WAG executive champion, the themes of the movie centered around self-reliance and leadership responsibility.

“Leadership has a responsibility to value everyone in the workforce and remove barriers,” he said, “but it’s not just someone in leadership opening the door. The door is usually knocked down because someone is banging it open on the other side.”

While conditions have improved for women in the workplace, recalled Cmdr. Maggie Wilson after 21 years in the Navy, there is still work to be done. At NAVAIR, women comprise 24 percent of the total workforce and, specifically, black women comprise 2.7 percent. The three panelists said recruitment and retention are essential to improving workplace diversity.

“Diverse organizations outperform organizations that are not diverse,” Ahmad said. “If we have pockets of people pushed to the side, we’re going to fail if we’re not all in together. There is a scientific imperative to what we’re doing today; we have to do this in order to be effective. We have to — all of us — take responsibility for this.”

The book and movie depict several instances where the women felt excluded in a traditional “man’s world,” and panelists shared similar experiences.

Wilson recalled her first squadron lacking a women’s restroom, which meant leaving the building to go to a trailer in the parking lot amid afternoon Florida thunderstorms. She said alerting a supervisor or co-worker to any barriers you may experience is important.

“You can’t remove a barrier if you don’t know it exists,” she explained. “I try to make sure people have the opportunity. Give people the chance to prove themselves — put them in the job and see what they do.”

Ahmad agreed creating opportunities is key to removing any barriers.

“Part of moving barriers is creating opportunities,” he said. “Leaders have to formally help those who don’t look like them if you want to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce. By having discussions, our workforce changes; it becomes more inclusive. It’s about belonging —you have to make people feel like they belong. You’ve got to be welcoming and do what you can to accommodate people.”

Muller suggested mentoring as an important step to retaining and growing employees, while Wilson said taking the time to ask them about the barriers they encounter and the goals they want to achieve is fundamental to retention.

Bottom line, panelists said employees need to exceed expectations and stand out to let their work speak for itself and to prove themselves in a diverse environment.

“It takes time to change the way people think, the way they operate,” Ahmad said. “You can’t control their biases, but you can help change them.”

The WAG, a subgroup to NAVAIR’s Executive Diversity Council, was founded in 2012 to make recommendations to senior leaders on topics such as family friendly workplace policies; STEM initiatives; women in the military; women in non-traditional roles; and barrier analysis.