Engineering a Way Through the Glass Ceiling
Monica Fernandez isn’t letting anything get in the way of her dream of becoming a computer programmer—and that includes other people’s assumptions.
“Coming from a community where everyone is sectioned off in their own groups and are very judgmental, I knew I needed a change of scenery,” she says. NYIT provided the environment she craved. Plus, two of her siblings attended NYIT, so she had already witnessed how the school helped broaden their career choices and their experiences. As a woman in STEM, she also sought ways to connect with others who are underrepresented in the field. Last semester, NYIT College of Engineering and Computing Sciences invited students to apply for a chance to attend the 2018 IEEE Women in Engineering (WIE) Forum in White Plains, N.Y. Fernandez was chosen. “I thought it would be a great experience,” she says. “It’s a conference where female engineers get together and share their experiences.” She also discovered that she isn’t alone in feeling like an outsider as a woman in engineering.
Fernandez sat down with The Box to talk about gender bias, her career aspirations, and how she has grown since enrolling at NYIT.
Why did you decide to be an electrical and computer engineering technology major?
At first I became interested in the electrical components. My interest was first sparked in my high school engineering class where we worked with circuits. After I started at NYIT, I became interested in the programming aspect. Also, my brother was an electrical and computer engineering technology major.
What were you most looking forward to when you came to NYIT?
I was looking forward to being challenged. It definitely matched my expectations, but it’s [also] made me question a lot of information I learn in class. I used to be the person to stay quiet and not offer my opinion, but I’ve learned that I don’t like to keep my mouth shut.
Can you talk about your career aspirations and how NYIT is preparing you for the future?
After graduating from NYIT, I plan on pursuing a career in programming. With the resources that NYIT provides, such as Career Services, and the people I’ve met on my journey so far, I believe that I will be able to do that. NYIT has kept me focused on my future and keeps me inspired.
Monica Fernandez at the IEEE Women in Engineering Forum.
You just returned from the IEEE WIE Forum. Tell us about your experience.
It was a good introduction to conferences and it was an eye opener. At first I doubted whether I would do well as a programmer, but the conference gave me motivation. The [female speakers] talked about how they started businesses and are successful in the engineering field.
My favorite session was “Female Leadership and its Impact on Sexism.” The speakers were students at Marist College which made me feel equal in a sense. They were talking about their experiences as students and how sexism has an effect on their school experience. It was something I could relate to and made me feel like I wasn’t the only one [who has had these experiences].
What is your biggest takeaway from the IEEE WIE Forum?
When speaker Jennifer Howland [from IBM] spoke about unconscious bias, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. She explained that people will always think that they are unbiased but in reality it’s something that can’t change. She explained how this has an effect on the workplace and shared her [own] experience with bias. [That has since stayed with me] and I try to be aware of it when interacting with people.
Have you experienced bias—conscious or unconscious?
[I have had professors] ignore my comments in class at times, making me feel like I’m not equal to the others. I can’t forget one student’s story about how her partner on a project decided to switch everything she worked on without her knowledge right before a competition because he wanted to make it his own in a sense.
What advice do you have for other women who want to pursue engineering?
I want women not to be afraid to go for their goals even if they seem out of the ordinary or outside of the status quo. Don’t feel intimidated by the people around you. At the end of the day, it’s about what you want. Try to push yourself to be better than those around you. You’re going to have to work hard, but it’s worth it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.