Susan Martinez is a mechanical engineer at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center — a position that very few people are selected for. After submitting your resume to NASA, a highly advanced artificial intelligence (AI) system sifts through applications to pull out a small percentage that will move on to the interview round.
Mechanical engineers are vital to NASA’s operations and space projects. Martinez specifically works as an International Space Station (ISS) operations controller, where she helps astronauts do science while they’re at the ISS.
Not only is NASA hard to get accepted into, but maneuvering the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) pipeline is also difficult — especially for women because of the STEM gap. Women make up half of the workforce in the U.S., yet they are highly underrepresented in STEM.
“My senior class of 400 students only had 30 girls in it,” Martinez told In The Know. “At that moment, I was like, what am I doing? Why is it this way? Why are girls shying so much away from what I would consider, even within engineering, the more male-dominated groups of engineering?”
The number of women in math and physical science occupations has increased a lot — in 2019, the Census Bureau found that women made up 47 percent and 45 percent of those careers, respectively. But computer and engineering occupations, which make up 80 percent of all STEM jobs, were rarely held by women.
After graduating and joining NASA, Martinez started to understand there was a certain level of gatekeeping within the engineering field. Based on Martinez’s experiences, there is a common misconception about the specific type of person who would fit in a STEM position, and she wants to dismantle that.
“You can only look like this. You can only dress like this, you can only act like this — I think that’s terrible,” Martinez said about the “boxes” people feel need to be ticked to pursue engineering. “I really, really would love to take this platform to a space where people can look at my profile and say, ‘I want to be just like her.’ I want to be able to be fashionable and still represent myself as a woman in STEM.”
And that is precisely what Martinez’s profile represents — it’s a mix of her personal style and posts about what it’s like to work at NASA.
“Allowing women to be fashionable, or wear what they want and still not have their intelligence questioned, or maybe they can wear lipstick to a lab, and that’s fine, without somebody looking at them funny, or telling them they don’t belong there, which are all things that have happened to me — it really eats at you in your heart and your brain,” she said. “There are so many things that STEM can be if we have the space to let it be that.”
According to Martinez, the consequences of not allowing diversity within the STEM field could be disastrous.
“If we don’t have women, and everybody — non-binary, LGBTQIA+, everybody — the STEM community is going to die,” she explained. “We can’t afford that in this day and age, in our climate. We can’t afford for something like that to happen.”
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