Former NASA astronaut says engineering needs women for best talent

Posted on 15 Feb 2023 by The Manufacturer

Progress in gender equality has improved for women in science and engineering, said two-time American space shuttle pilot Susan Kilrain at Space Camp 2101 five-day event at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) geared to engage and motivate primary and secondary grade students toward STEM careers.

More than 200 Saudi students participated. Held February 5–9, the camp featured three NASA astronauts and one Space X astronaut, an arrangement made possible by a sponsorship agreement with the Saudi Space Commission (SSC).

12-year-old Saudi Strategic National Advancement (SNA) student Amnah Alhomoud had the opportunity to interview Commander Kilrain at the event.

“I began my astronaut journey a long time ago when there were a lot of biases against women in engineering, which was my educational field. I was a Navy test pilot. Then I came to NASA, and there were many biases along the way. I didn’t pay them any attention. I decided, ‘You know what? The airplane does not know the gender of the person sitting in the seat,’” Kilrain said.

“People respect women in engineering a lot more now than they did back when I was coming through, and it’s great to see that the young women now have more opportunities. There’s still work to do, but we’ve come a long way,” she added.

Kilrain highlighted that one of the ways to improve gender bias is to take an important role in mentoring young ladies who are coming through traditionally male fields such as engineering by helping them to advance and become leaders in the power structure of an organisation.

The former NASA astronaut’s first mission was cut short due to a life-threatening system failure, to which she was advised to compartmentalise fear and follow procedure.

“We were taught to do what’s called compartmentalisation. When things aren’t going your way – maybe you had a bad day at home or are having an emergency on orbit – you put that aspect, risk or danger in the back of your head and handle the situation as you’ve been trained to do,” she said.

Kilrain praised KAUST as an institute that supports women, referencing its student body of nearly 40% female students, and underlined the importance, in general, of supporting women in science.

“KAUST is a world-leading University with so many female students and professors. It is awesome to see, and also important, because if women aren’t progressing, then you’ve basically cut out 50 percent of the world’s population. Why wouldn’t you engage those 50 percent?  (The field of) engineering doesn’t care if it’s a woman or a man (in the job), so why should we? We want to get the best talent that we can, and sometimes that’s a woman,” she said.

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