Women in STEM - why engineers don't come in pink or blue

Hello, my name is Beth and I am thrilled to be an aerospace engineer, first at NASA and now with Virgin Galactic. But does being a woman make a difference in my work? Does the workplace believe engineers come as either pink or blue based on gender? 

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You will succeed, advance, and even have fun if you consistently produce solid technical work toward the advancement of a worthwhile project that inspires your soul. Your path stems, pun intended, from your product. Characteristics like work ethic, drive, attitude, and temperament have far more to do with project advancement, and therefore personal satisfaction, than gender. At least in modern global human aerospace projects. If you are a capable, reflective, and easygoing engineer who is passionately pursuing a great cause, you will succeed. And most everyone around you will too.

There are actually more women in power in aerospace than you might think. It’s not uncommon for women to lead companies, centers, divisions, and massive projects. My friend Mary is testing the James Webb Telescope; Amy is leading the new NASA space suit; Liana is an engineering supervisor; Julia is Virgin Galactic’s Director of Operations. If you are a female STEM student, never fear, there will be like-minded women when you enter the workplace.

For me, human spaceflight has always been a shining beacon of inspiration. What’s more exciting than space?! I was the little girl who built insane machines from blocks, logs, and erector sets. And I was fortunate to have parents who trailed after me through science museums long after they were bored to tears. No surprise, then, that I went off to college to study aerospace engineering. And of course, women are underrepresented in STEM programs in college.

When and why do girls turn away from STEM programs? Aerospace seems universally inspiring in a way that few endeavors are. Why weren’t there more gals in my college courses? Recently I chatted with a science counselor who believes that preteen girls are steered away from STEM by well-meaning adults around age 12. Why? If I could ask one favor of parents, it would be this: please respect the natural curiosity of youth. “Dad, how does this work?  Mom, how did you build that? Teacher, why do we study this? Google, what is SpaceShipTwo?” Of these questions come STEM students. We go to college to pursue curiosity and inspiration.

Holy moly, none of this works on paper, get the intern to fix it, she doesn’t know it’s impossible!

In my case, after an extensive internship, I had the good fortune to join NASA and ultimately serve as the ISS EVA System Manager. I spent years engineering the innumerable connectors, valves, antennas, worksites and whatnot that spacewalkers used to assemble the space station in orbit. I needed to understand component designs, model orbital functionality, test the tricky ones, and deal with the proverbial round pegs, square holes, and stiff hoses. Not to mention budgets, contracts, and teams. Ultimately the station was assembled by spacewalkers while circling the Earth at Mach 25 through deep cold and high heat. And it all fitted together!

It was a massive accomplishment by a huge team, and I was honored and humbled to play a part. In fact, to this day I wonder if someone ever said “holy moly, none of this works on paper, get the intern to fix it, she doesn’t know it’s impossible!” Upon completion of the space station, I was fortunate to be invited to join Virgin Galactic in opening space to everyone.

After countless projects, I can say this: engineering persistence trumps personal, cultural, or gender factors. In modern global human aerospace, it really doesn’t matter what you look like.  Or where your parents lived. Or even what native language you grew up with. What does matter is your engineering skill, common sense, courtesy, persistence, and dedication to the shared mission. 

In a sense, everyone working on an international engineering project looks slightly different, speaks with an accent, uses a different system of measure, sleeps on a different time zone, but finds common human ground. Consider that many engineering projects today are building something complex that serves the whole globe - be it the International Space Station or the Virgin Galactic ships. In that environment, gender is negligible. Being a woman?  It’s never been a factor. Being in the right place at the right time with a good attitude and a technical solution to a common problem…that’s the whole ball game.

Because engineers don’t come in pink or blue.

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