2023

Dr. Anna Fernandez-Sesma

Chair of Microbiology, Icahn School, Mount Sinai

“Do work that is fulfilling to you. Do something that makes you happy, if not don’t do it.”

In your opinion, what qualities make for a power woman?

I think a power woman has to be sure about what she wants in life and what she considers important. I think having that self confidence and to really know what your goals are will help with being in a position of power. Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg said “women have to be in places where decisions are made” so I think it’s good to, first, be in those rooms and if you possess that self confidence, you’re assertive enough, without being aggressive or bossy, and you’re able to communicate on an empathetic level. I think these are all qualities that make a power woman.

What do you think is the number one action as a society we can take towards empowering women in gender equality?

As a society we need to understand there are no roles that are more important than others. For many years we have been taught that some of the roles that women do, like raising children, are not as important as some of the roles that men do. Education about the importance of the different roles in society allows a space to create more gender equality. Sometimes women take on a more nurturing role in society because it is more compatible for them for many different reasons. Sometimes in society we value the roles that make more money and having this mindset will make it difficult to reach gender equality. We need to understand there are so many layers in society that are actually making up our society. We shouldn’t make a big distinction about what roles are more important than other roles. I think this will help with empowering women in gender equality because different roles are contributing in different ways. I think we need to have an understanding that every role that we do,even if it’s not a super powerful role, has an impact and the importance of everybody’s jobs in society.

What was the defining moment that brought you to where you are today?

I believe that I am a very fortunate person because I have taken the opportunities that have come my way. After college, I had the opportunity to come to the U.S with my husband where he had a job offer at Mount Sinai. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I had the opportunity to intern at Mount Sinai. There was a turning point where we had to make the decision to stay in the U.S or go back to Spain to raise our family and we decided to stay at the expense of leaving our families back home. We thought to ourselves we are doing what we love in the U.S, which is science, we are together, and had so many opportunities come our way in New York. That was our chance to make our own path. Having a partner that supported me and being able to make that decision to stay here was really the turning point for me. One of my mentors has always pushed me to do things and to take opportunities and he said to me “I don’t push you, I bring you to the edge of the cliff and you’re the one that makes the decision to jump, and you always jump” I have been very fortunate to be surrounded by people who have supported me and pushed me where I have been empowered to make decisions that shaped my future.

We are still in a place where the road for equality is still not the same. What do you feel we need to do in the 21st century to make this less of a stumbling block?

There should be more support for women to have a professional life and family life. Whether that’s facilitating day care or facilitating how women can travel to meetings even with small children. We need to make sure women don’t miss out on opportunities because they have to stay behind to care for children. There should be equal access to resources to support both parents. Again going back to education, we need to educate our society that everyone has the right to grow in their careers and having a family shouldn’t be a barrier. Women should not have to negotiate either having a career or family.

What is the mantra that you live your life by?

Do work that is fulfilling to you. Do something that makes you happy, if not don’t do it.

Have you seen changes in the political landscape for women over the past few years? If so, what are they?

We are seeing more women in political leadership roles. In the seventies there were women leaders, but they were always super tough but now women are more real and are showing a more vulnerable side. Even though sometimes we are attacked for showing our vulnerable side I think it’s important to show the humanity within leaders. Politics have always been so hostile over the years and we are starting to see a change. Another thing that has changed that’s a little bit scary is we thought women’s rights were a given, but recently we are seeing that we are going backwards and some of those rights are being taken away, but this is also causing an uproar that will be able to reinstate those rights.

If you could have one person’s job for a day, who would that be, and why?

I would love to make decisions that make a big impact on the rest of the world like having a foundation with unlimited resources that could actually end inequality of vaccine distribution or not having access to food. I would love to be in a position where I can solve the big problems in the world.

What would you say is the best piece of advice somebody has ever given you?

Don’t regret any decisions that you make. Just keep moving forward and don’t look back.

How do you take steps to obtain a very healthy work life balance?

Having clear priorities in each stage of my life and being realistic about what really needs my attention and what could wait. I always joked that sleep is overrated.

What is your favorite book (fiction or non-fiction)?

A Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What do you most value in your friends?

Loyalty.

What trait do you most deplore in yourself and others?

I am too self critical and I take things personally, I’m a little sensitive about criticism. I hate arrogance in other people.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Custody.

“Don’t regret any decisions that you make. Just keep moving forward and don’t look back.”

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