Confidence is key, say women STEM leaders

Biomedical engineer Michaella Kavanagh (right, with mic) said she somehow made it through college without having to do many presentations and advised students at Tuesday’s Women in STEM panel to step out of their comfort zone and present as much as they can.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

“Here we go. This is going to be terrible!”

Michaella Kavanagh knew she was in a professional pickle. What was going to happen next wasn’t going to be cute. All her insecurities were ready to spill all over the floor, right there in front of her interviewers.

The BD Peripheral Intervention biomedical engineer, early in her career, wanted a job at a startup working in artificial heart valves.  

GCU Society of Women Engineers project engineer Jessica Padilla, one of three student moderators, directed a question to the panelists.

But when she was a student at Trinity College in Dublin, she wasn’t the best in her class. She didn’t know everything, like some people seemed to, and started to feel self-doubt digging in its heels.

“Am I a good engineer if I CAN’T do all this?” she asked herself.

Then she questioned her youth and inexperience.

When her interviewers asked her to draw a heart valve in SolidWorks, a computer-aided design and engineering application, she knew disaster was around the corner.

She didn’t know much about SolidWorks, so she did the best she could before turning to her interviewers, verbally expressing what she would do and assuring them, “This (SolidWorks) is something I can figure out. I need time with it. This is my thought process and this is what I would do.”

After what she thought was a disastrous interview, she tried to convince herself, “I don’t want it anyway.”

But then she was offered the job, though she ended up accepting a position with a different company.

The big takeaway she shared with Grand Canyon University students at the second annual Women in STEM panel Tuesday in the Engineering Building: “We definitely have moments where we don’t believe in ourselves. You DO have to be confident.”

It wasn’t the only advice she and four other female engineers, technology professionals and recruiting professionals shared at the event, planned and organized by three GCU student STEM clubs — the GCU chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, the Technology Club and HOSA Future Health Professionals. They worked with K12 Educational Development, Strategic Employer Initiatives and Internships, and the College of Science, Engineering and Technology to bring the event to campus.

Shelly Tudor (second from right) said she changed her major twice but knew she found what she wanted to do when she walked into a computer room on Good Friday and didn’t come out until Easter Sunday.

Information systems professional Shelly Tudor told students to “forget the list” when it comes for going for the job you want. If you can’t check off all the requirements in a long list of requirements, it’s OK. You can learn those skills.

“As a hiring manager, I have had so many people that I’ve interviewed or hired that don’t have a clue,” but they do have that confidence, said Tudor. Some have been successful; some haven’t. Her advice: “Don’t disqualify yourself. … You are your best advocate. No one can toot your horn as well as you can.”

Civil engineer Susan Detwiler, the Chief Operating Officer at private consulting firm Dibble, echoed that theme of confidence.

“You’ve got to get that handshake down, ladies,” she told the students. “It’s got to be confident. It’s got to be firm. It is the first impression. … Be the first to put a hand out.” The art of handshaking? “It’s HUGE.”

She also prodded students to focus on details that might not seem as huge, as detailed in Dr. Lois P. Frankel’s book “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers.”

“There really is one aspect I think that women should be focused on, and that is the subtle differences in the way that you communicate,” Detwiler said. “There's a number of actions females perform that are perceived negatively by men. … Playing with your hair, fidgeting, maybe couching a statement as a question, the wimpy handshake … over-apologizing, using please and thank you too much in email correspondence.”

She also implored attendees to stand up for themselves. If they hear an inappropriate joke, don’t laugh.

Then she shared those times when she was at a professional function and someone asked her, more than once, what she does for her company.

Susan Detwiler, the Chief Operating Officer for the Dibble consulting firm, advised students to perfect their handshake to make that good first impression.

“Are you in marketing?” they ask.

Early in her career, she thought it was great someone would think that, because marketing professionals are so creative and fun. But later in her career, she realized how those assumptions tear down women who are in technical fields.

She said to be prepared to be polite and let people know in a subtle way not to make those kind of assumptions by saying something like, “No. I’m an engineer. YOU must be in marketing.”

A big topic of interest for the students: how to negotiate your salary.

Panelist Janelle Mathews, co-founder of recruiting firm Gold Search Partners, said to do your research.

“You don’t just pull a number out of the air,” Mathews said. Factor in your level of experience and educate yourself on the market.

Then remember that the shiny number a company puts in front of you isn’t everything, Detwiler added.

Marla Peterson, a senior technical manager at Honeywell Aerospace, said when negotiating salary, don’t only look at the numbers but tuition benefits, rotational programs and the like.

Marla Peterson, a systems engineer who is a senior technical manager at Honeywell Aerospace, said to ask companies about tuition reimbursement and rotational programs, in which employees move through different jobs in the same company so they can see where they might fit in the best.

When students asked the panelists about what they regret NOT doing before going into industry, Kavanagh advised to get an internship because industry is very different from college.

She added, “When I was in school, I somehow managed to get by with doing very little presentations,” and she remembers the first meeting she went into, where she had a small task and talked for maybe a minute. “I was so nervous thinking all day about this, just preparing in my head.”

Stepping out of your comfort zone while you’re still in college and doing those presentations? It’s daunting, Kavanagh said, but worth it.

Peterson, who has worked in STEM for 38 years, addressed how important it is to seek mentors. If you can find a woman manager to mentor you, that’s great. But, she added, “When I started, I think it was very tough for men to figure out what women do at work besides being an administrative assistant. … But we’ve really progressed a long way, and you need to think of men as your partners. … You want to find men at work that are advocates or sponsors that will mentor you.”

The panelists also spoke about how, when it comes to women in STEM jobs, they have the upper hand. Students need to make sure they’re interviewing the company as much as the company is interviewing them.

Detwiler said, “Especially in today’s industry, you have a choice of picking where you want to work. It’s a fantastic position to be in.”

Adrianna Ruby, a member of GCU’s Society of Women Engineers, attends the Women in STEM panel.

She shared her own story of why she chose her company, Dibble, whose recruiters shared with her how they were dedicated to improving the community. That higher cause spoke to her core.

Pay attention to the company culture and consider the people you will be working with, they emphasized.

“I love the chitchat in the halls,” Kavanagh shared, and she’s friends with her work colleagues, which has made all the difference in her career.

Mathews shared how companies want to know why you want to work for them.

“My clients get so excited about candidates who they feel are really choosing them for really intentional reasons,” she said.

Tudor added that technical brilliance isn’t necessarily the be-all, end-all. If a technically brilliant person doesn’t work well with people, that person likely won’t fit in with that company.

In the end, “I’m going to go back to the confidence,” Detwiler piped in. “We hire a lot of people. Especially for grads coming out of college, we’re not hiring you for what you know from school. … They know you don’t know how to do the job, and that’s normal for a new grad. But what’s important is your potential.”

Niya Patterson, lead for the Technology Club’s Girls Who Code Committee, was one of the student moderators asking the panelists questions.

Biomedical engineering senior Trang Pham, the secretary for GCU’s Society of Women Engineers, served as the event moderator alongside Jessica Padilla, SWE project engineer, and cybersecurity junior Niya Patterson, lead for the Technology Club’s Girls Who Code Committee.

Pham focused on how Monday’s Women in STEM Panel was about women supporting women.

“I know that there’s a lack of role models of women in STEM,” she said, noting that the number of women working in STEM fields is still lagging behind the number of men working in those industries. “But this event shows there are (female STEM) role models.”

Junior mechanical engineering major Kaitlan Miller, a member of SWE and co-president of GCU’s Robotics Club, pointed to her takeaway from the panel, which was “definitely the confidence part and how you act in interviews, what you need to ask.”

Detwiler said the industry looked a little different when she was just entering the industry 24 years ago. That landscape is changing. Women can look up and see faces like hers and the other panelists who are working in STEM fields.

“I LOVE seeing the energy and enthusiasm and diversity,” Detwiler said. “The future is bright.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: STEM savvy launched at MESA Regional Design Day

GCU Today: SWE, Tech Club bring girls-only coding event to GCU

GCU Today: Women STEM leaders give sage advice to students


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May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)

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