November 07, 2022
Room to Read is excited to welcome Fernanda Gándara as director of research, monitoring and reporting for our Girls' Education Program!
Fernanda brings an impressive array of technical skills and project experience. She has led many innovative evaluations and research studies across historically low-income countries, conducted extensive psychometric analyses to improve data measurement, and led workshops and presentations to policy makers to ensure appropriate research findings were incorporated into decision making.
She is passionate about gender, inclusivity and justice, and has had the opportunity to lead gender and girls’ education-focused studies. She earned a six-year degree in industrial engineering from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and has a Ph.D. in research, educational measurement, and psychometrics from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a leading institution in educational measurement.
We recently sat down with Fernanda to learn more about her background and experience. Read on to learn more!
How did you first become passionate about gender equality?
As a woman, you become aware of gender inequality early in life. I became more aware of gender inequality as an industrial engineering student. I went to a school that educates many of the most successful people in Chile, my home country, so it was something to be proud of, but I ended up immersed in an environment that I did not enjoy. The ratio of women to men was something like 1:10 at that time, and many of my peers were elitist and quite conservative. As a result, I had a few cultural clashes — even an identity crisis. I never felt less able than any of my peers, but that women had to behave in a certain way to be fully respected, something that I refused. Of course, not everyone was like that, but in that space, a woman was typically celebrated for her achievements as long as she didn’t cross certain gender-normative lines.
A year after graduating, I was able to put my life into perspective. I understood the extent to which being a woman played a role, and I have been committed to the feminist cause ever since.
What sparked your interest in research and educational measurement?
I began working in educational research and measurement by accident. After I graduated with a degree in industrial engineering, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my professional life. I started working in private equity, which everyone around me told me was great. It was supposed to be fun because I liked math and I had done well in finance courses. However, I quickly realized that the investment world was not for me. Nothing felt right about that job at that time. So, after a year, I quit and took a low-paying research assistant position with a professor who was a psychometrician.
This professor had worked with a very close friend of mine, and I knew that she was passionate about education, measurement and social justice. People around me did not understand my decision, but I became much happier. I liked my job, I was doing interesting research, contributing to important questions and I could still pay my rent! Leaving the “dream job” to look for something I actually cared about was the most empowering move I’ve ever made. I was finally on a path that felt like mine, and I fell in love with measurement and with social research more broadly.
What is your favorite part about working on research, monitoring and evaluation (RM&E)?
I love research, monitoring and evaluation (RM&E) work. It is essential to implementing organizations like Room to Read, and it is also really fun! I love everything from designing RM&E tasks, to properly presenting results, to brainstorming ways in which we can translate results into concrete practices and programmatic enhancements.
My favorite part of the work these days is developing tools, including assessments and surveys. I enjoy thinking about constructs, visualizing them, discussing them with people and thinking about appropriate ways to measure them. Educational and psychological measurement is ultimately concerned with human behavior, and instrument development leads you to core questions about the ways people experience and interpret events in their lives. I think that is fascinating.
In your eyes, why is research, monitoring and evaluation such an important component of the work that Room to Read does?
In a nutshell, RM&E is what enables Room to Read to continuously improve program design and implementation.
Room to Read is working to improve people’s lives, which is not easy. Education programs do not work like magic pills that you can take and all of a sudden, your problems are solved. Education programs are designed to provide the right support for people so that they can live their lives to their fullest potential. You can teach people skills, but a good education program teaches those skills in ways that make sense to students and enhance their learning. And doing that requires continuous feedback that only RM&E can provide.
What is something people might not realize about the work you and the RM&E team do?
People who do not work in RM&E generally underestimate the time that it takes to deliver high-quality work. Every analysis we run involves hours of cleaning and analyzing data, and discussing complex ideas with peers. Even if a result is clear to you, translating that result into something that will be clear to others can be challenging. In addition, people may not realize that RM&E is not a mechanical set of tasks. RM&E work is highly dependent on judgment, stressing the importance of creating diverse and inclusive teams, led by experienced peers.
Who is a woman who has inspired you in your life?
These days, I think a lot about mothers of children with special needs. I know a few, and their dedication, resilience and love are deeply inspiring.