Demanding Diversity: One Woman's Journey To Become A New York City Firefighter

Here's how Jackie-Michelle Martinez broke the mold and became one of only 58 female firefighters out of 10,000 in the New York City Fire Department.

Jackie-Michelle Martinez wasn't setting out to break any glass ceilings.

Martinez went to college at Emory University for biochemistry, but when her mother got sick she had to make other plans back home in New York City. While working as a product manager at Ralph Lauren, she said a conversation about firefighting spiked her interest, especially the service-oriented aspects of the field.

Martinez decided that was the career for her, despite the fact that it was not a traditional field for women. When she joined the field in 2006, she was the 29th female firefighter in New York City history. Today there are 58 female firefighters in the city overall, out of a total of 10,000.

The only woman to finish her class, out of 326, Martinez told Women of the Channel Leadership Summit attendees in New York City that she was "very fearful" that she wouldn't reach her dream, especially as she wanted other women get weeded out. However, she said she didn't want to let anyone take away her dream.

"Adversity can either break you or build you…Most people don’t know their own worth… [But you should] never allow anyone to make you feel less than them," she said.  

When she joined her Brooklyn firehouse, the only women firefighter in the group, Martinez said her message to her peers was that she wanted to be treated like everyone else and allowed to do her job, something she said she was "blessed to have great leadership" that understood that goal. While working out and training had made her strong and able to keep up, she said made a plan to set herself apart by being more strategic about approaching tasks, which she said helped prevent injuries in those around her.

"Over time I knew that my job demands physical strength and women we are thinkers and more strategic and I knew how to manipulate my body to perform to task…I realized that I had to stay focused and come up with a plan, a plan for my career and where I wanted to see myself. It doesn't matter what career you have - you should have a plan."

However, Martinez said there were times where men struggled to accept her in their ranks, especially those from older generations. While they ignored her or doubted her abilities, Martinez said she persevered by refusing to ever leave the situation. She said she would stand her ground, crack jokes and show she could hold her own in the tasks required of the job. Those doubters then often became her biggest allies, she said.

"You will always find adversity," Martinez said. "If you just stay the course onto what your vision and goal is, trust me the labor of what you are doing will be accomplished and seen."

Now, Martinez said she works to show other girls and women the benefits of being a firefighter, or even involved with the firefighting force, jobs that come with pensions, high salaries and a rewarding mission. As the official Women's Outreach Coordinator for the New York City Fire Department, Martinez goes to schools, talking to sports teams and other groups about the benefits of the job and showing them the equipment. She said she urges girls to still go to college, but also encourages them to take the firefighters test as a Plan B option.

"I decided to break the glass ceiling… We want to leave a footmark in history. We don’t want to be a blip," Martinez said. 

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