Urban Family Planning

An engineer's journey balancing cutting-edge research and motherhood.

By Naser Al Wasmi, NYU Abu Dhabi Public Affairs

There’s a proverb attributed to several African countries that says “it takes a village to raise a child." Professor Monica Menendez wants to take that adage a step further and apply it to our urban lifestyles by saying "it takes a city."

Menendez is exceptional on two fronts. One, she is a young academic on the vanguard of her field as an associate professor of civil and urban engineering at NYU Abu Dhabi with over 50 peer reviewed journal publications. She’s on several transportation and urban planning advisory boards and academic committees, and she heads a research center in Abu Dhabi that looks at modernizing our cities and taking a multi-faceted approach to improving them.

Second, she’s achieved this all while raising two children without so much as taking any prolonged time off. When she isn’t working, she’s spending time with her children and trying to set an example.

“I do find myself talking with my daughter and explaining you can be a mom and you can still excel at your job, be promoted and succeed. I have made a point of working full-time in part to show her that it is possible. I don’t want my daughter to think less of herself just because she’s female,” she said.

It’s the same example set by the professor's mother. Menendez admits she didn’t get into engineering to satisfy some childhood dream, but looking back she says that having her mom as a role model was part of what gives her confidence to continue in such a male-dominated field.

Menendez grew up in Cuba surrounded by women working as engineers and raising families. It wasn’t until she began working in Europe that she first experienced the attitude that discourages women — let alone mothers looking to pursue full-time, research-based employment — from working in engineering.

Family First

Menendez says societal standards in some places fully accept the idea of women going into STEM, and she never felt discouraged from getting her PhD in the US. Throughout her graduate studies she never once felt discriminated against. It wasn't until she decided to start a family that she was treated differently. 

“Sometimes, in some places, women are seen as not part of the workforce, especially if they have kids and a family. They see it as women can either be good mothers or good researchers, and their assumption is that you cannot do both,” she said.

But she has. Menendez’s family is a living testament of that, as she balances raising children while pursuing her academic research at the highest level. The onus is on men to remedy the severe underrepresentation of women in the workforce. Fathers need to become equally responsible for raising their children by stepping up and providing the support system working mothers need.

"Cities can empower women in many ways"

Monica Menendez

Her support system is based first and foremost on her family — a husband who’s responsible for raising his children just as much as she is. Her partner’s steadfast involvement also teaches her son an important lesson.

“My husband is very hands-on, he has equal care of responsibilities for our children at home. This means that not only my daughter gets this message but also my son has this culture of responsibility at home so his wife will be able to do whatever she wants professionally, this is important. My dad was also a role model for me.”

But she says, a city can also play its part in being conducive to the support system. It’s at the crux of her research, which asks: How do we make cities more people-centric? In this particular case, she believes that cities play a big role in raising children.

“Cities can empower women in many ways, but one of the ways is in helping raise children. It has to do with what a city offers, to provide burden-sharing. There’s a lot of services that surround the life of families that could be available in cities that would eventually lead for empowering women by freeing them of menial tasks society exclusively expect mothers to do,” she says.

Transportation as a Lifeline to Working Women

She says one of the biggest failures of a city, and a big factor that limits the ability for women to maintain full-time professional pursuits, is transportation. More time can be provided to parents if cities were planned in a way that allowed children to walk to school and save some parents the long commutes needed to provide children with a good education. The urban transformation must also come with a societal shift that places equal responsibility on both parents to raise children.

It’s this interdisciplinary approach that has defined Menendez’s research and the philosophy at the heart of her new center.

“There’s a lot of interdependencies in cities, some are visible some are hidden, that we need to fully understand. So when we develop solutions to address one issue, we might end up creating externalities that we weren’t expecting in the first place. Discovering these hidden dependencies will allow for a much more comprehensive understanding of the city,” she said.

Examples are everywhere in the vast majority of cities and the policies aimed at addressing challenges to growing urban populations. Most cities that are electrifying their vehicle fleets through hybrid vehicles fail to understand the pressure that added demand will place on the energy grid. Their efforts, although altruistic and aimed at sustainability, could ultimately be ineffective if a city's electricity grid is fueled by energy with a higher carbon footprint than gasoline. Furthermore, energy grids could be overloaded from the added strain of rapidly hybridizing the urban vehicle fleet. It's these oversights in interdependencies that trigger city-wide, and at times national, shortcomings. 

The NYUAD research she is leading at the Center for Interacting Urban Networks is taking a multidisciplinary approach to address these issues. There are obvious fields that need more communication that make for better solutions, such as urban planners and transportation experts, but she says the connectivity of every discipline is what makes a city exists — so why not bring everyone on board.

 Her new research center, and her general approach to solving problems, is to take an interdisciplinary approach. She says several issues can be better solved if the various decision-makers in a city communicate better.

“Everyone drives through cities; everyone experiences them and says I can make them better. But in my case, I can actually work on them. I have the ability to work on something that impacts all of us, and I think the best way to work on it is together so that we can live more meaningful lives,” she said.