Nancy Fares

As Interviewed by Shreya Ramanathan, March 16, 2016

Nancy Fares: In her own words

I went to an all girls school, so there was no boy, girl competition. It was all girls, and we all excelled and succeeded, without any biases to womenís rights, or the role of a girl in a science, or math major, because we made up the general population. I never really thought about it, of there being a challenge in being a girl in math or science. It was a mix for the girlís interests in science and math, we grew up in just regular classes, the system in Egypt, all the way up to the final 2 years in high school, when we had to select interests in Liberal Arts, or in science, or in math. Science and Math were a very common path, we took many classes together, but the math area were much more concentrated on advanced classes in math, as well as people who are basically interested in going into engineering schools, and into math driven careers. So I think it was a mix of girls in the subjects, it was just a regular population distribution, just like you would expect the regular population to be distributed.

I went to college in Cairo, I went to Engineering school, the top engineering school in Egypt, in Cairo. Iíve always wanted to be an electrical engineer. I was good in Math, and my professor in Math, encouraged me to go into engineering. He told me that there were two things you could do if you liked math, one, be a math teacher if you liked the theoretical side of math, or if you liked the practical side of math, become an engineer. And, even though I didnít know what an engineer was, I wanted to become an engineer. I liked math, and I didnít like the theory part. I had a different experience I guess, while applying to colleges and courses, because I did join engineering school in Cairo, which is kind of fascinating when you think about it.

Egypt is a third world country, but yet the encouragement of women and girls in the sciences and engineering, is very different. When I went to engineering school in Cairo, the population was 50% men, and 50% women. I certainly wasnít a minority, in going to engineering school, so you know, when you join engineering school, even after a year or so, you get your specialities, electrical, mechanical, you know all the different, civil engineering, whatever. And even, mechanical or civil, which youíd think would be less women, even that was the population of the women, was around 40% or so women.

My experience had been, that it was a very different environment there in Egypt. Where actually there was actually no discouragement against going to sciences or certainly not in the Medical field. Certainly not in the Engineering. My family encouraged engineering, you know, and when I went in, I definitely wasnít a minority, I was just in the population. To get equal opportunities, it was just a matter of how you do in high school, and it is very similar to the system that we have here: there were AP courses. So, in other words, you cannot go to Engineering school unless you do very, very well in your senior year, you know, score high. Score high in math, score high in all the classes in general, and when you have high scores, you get to choose whichever field you want, and there is no discouragement, or placement based on anything except your grades, and your scores.

So, by definition, people that went to Engineering School, were high scores people, especially the university I joined was the highest engineering school, you had to have the highest scores, in the population of the country, to go to that engineering school. So you just had to do well in school there was, you know, if you didnít do well in school, then you couldnít do go, thatís how it was. Thereís no way around that, you just have to have high grades, to be able to go to good schools. Itís more performance based there in Egypt. My college was called Ain Shams Engineering School. In Egypt I didnít spend, a lot of time in college, I only spent a couple years, then I moved to the States, when I went to college here at UTD, and I ended up getting my bachelorís degree there at that school for electrical engineering.

I would say it was kind of different back in Egypt, the whole experience really. I didnít feel any different, being in school, though I kind of knew that working as an engineer after college would be a challenge, and that was a thought and a fact for me, but what I thought was, who cares? Iím still going to be able to study what I love to study, which is engineering, so Iíll do that. So when I came here to the states, it was very different because I went to electrical engineering school, and I was the minority all of a sudden, it was kind of interesting to me when I came here, because I was one of very few girls in the room in different classes.

So, I kind of started exploring why that is, I couldnít understand why, there is not enough women, like 50/50 just like I was accustomed to before. The interesting thing that I discovered was that, even though weíre a minority in classes, that afterward when we graduate we can get a job, as an engineer. So, that was a good thing, to find out. But certainly in the school it was puzzling to me and I used to always have discussions with my peers, about why that is, I just couldnít understand.

My first job was in Dallas, TX, I moved with my husband to Michigan, and I couldnít find a job there as an electrical engineer, so I ended up moving back to Dallas, and I was a Junior Design Engineer, for Micropac Industries. So, interestingly this was a job that I would want to get, because the responsibilities of design, and being a junior under the guidance of a senior, frankly, he, Wane- didnít have an engineering degree, but I reported to him, and he was teaching me how to design analog circuitry, whatís interesting was that he has all the practical knowledge, and I was fresh out of school, so I had all the theoretical, school knowledge. So, I actually really liked working with him and under him, because in the couple of years that I worked in that job, I got a significant amount of hands on intuition about design, that I didnít get at school. It may not have been as easy to get if I was working for a guy/gal kind of like me, that just graduated school. That was good, it was a job that I would have probably selected.

When I look back those years gave me a significant amount of experience, that I wouldnít have gotten. The part I didnít like was that I was underpaid, significantly. When I graduated I knew roughly where my peers were getting jobs at, paywise, and I was probably at this job, offered at 5-6,000 less, which was probably 20% less. I was very good at school so it wasnít my grades, but I was offered that job, with that pay. Frankly, I took it, I wanted to move back to Dallas, I wanted that first job, I just was willing to take a job, that pays less, and I didnít know how to negotiate anyway, so I just took the job.

What I would tell young women going into the workplace, is always negotiate. I felt that I was paid less, because of my gender, because I didnít negotiate. The girl, boy ratio has a huge space, in engineering, and if you look at the population of engineers, youíll see that. Even less so, in the business side, once you cut it with the engineers and then business, youíd see even less women. In primary jobs and roles, and more women in supporting roles and functions. More women, in human facilities, realty, etc. So, all these supporting functions, more women. But if you look at primary lines of business, youíll see very less women. But if you just count total women to men, then youíll find thereís 25-30 % women, but really you have to dissect it further, and ask yourself, how many women are in the prime business line. In my career I have been less listened to for sure, than a man.
There are courses that women take, that Iíve taken, on how to present yourself, in a way that would be heard. So, in my opinion, I feel that women have a challenge of being heard. I mentor younger women and girls, I also love high school age, so I mentor several high school girls , through my church, and through a committee that supports girls in STEM, Girls Start. But, my views on girlsí rights have absolutely changed since when I was young, I think, at some point, in my career, I was invited to a meeting on how to encourage women in engineering and I was very puzzled because I didnít feel that there was any discrimination, and I didnít notice that I always worked harder than, other men in my peer group. And, that meeting opened my eyes, and showed me that there really is inequality there, and the data does not lie, so that was really a turning point for me, because it made me realize that it is hard for women to make it in the workplace, up until then it never really occurred to me that I was different, I just thought about myself as one of the guys, and do like they do.

And, I certainly hope that there would be complete equality, and I think we have long ways to go, and I encourage the people who strive to change the world. For the young women in the world working for this change, I tell them, to not shy away, donít take no for an answer. Nothing worth having isnít hard. Just go for it.