Career Pathways: From Unnerving to Victorious

Women engineers never forget work horror stories, but emerge triumphant after overcoming their fears.

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Career Pathways: From Unnerving to Victorious

“Career Pathways: From Unnerving to Victorious” was written by Sandra Guy, SWE Contributor.


Whether it’s a frightful colleague, a scary work venture, or a bold job change, women engineers figure out how to overcome their initial qualms.

That’s good news — and it’s a result that anyone can achieve, says a consultant called “a creative guru” by The Washington Post.

“We can create new neural pathways so that we don’t have the same old knee-jerk responses to things, and instead come from a more mindful, conscious place,” said Deb Beroset, a neurotransformational coach and founder and CEO of Moxie Creative & Consulting Inc., a Chicago-based agency focused on helping people and enterprises consciously create how they show up in the world.

Stella Uzochukwu-Denis, who runs the SWENext club in Nigeria, where the extremist group Boko Haram is an ever-present threat, tells girls never to think of themselves as a “lesser power” than men.

Instead, she tells them, “The only time you get ‘un-noticed’ is if you’re not coming out the best. If you’re coming out the best in every subject, you cannot be waved off.”

Uzochukwu-Denis speaks out amid ever-present threats from extremist group Boko Haram and widespread apathy about workplace diversity and the STEM gender gap. She also works to find mentors and role models to work with local teen girls and offer encouragement.

“I try to ensure that I keep them straight ahead,” said Uzochukwu-Denis, who is also the program director for the Odyssey Educational Foundation, introducing girls in 12 states in Abuja, Nigeria, to robotics, artificial intelligence, computer programming, mobile-app development, and other STEM programs.

“I want to make sure [the teen girls] don’t get discouraged along the way.”

Karen Chan, P.Eng., a SWE global ambassador in Toronto, can still remember feeling fearful of a male plant worker (see “Spooky Stories of Electrical Outages, Adventures with Babies, and Weird Co-Worker Warnings”), so she took precautions by befriending other supervisors and leaving her work shifts with her colleagues.

Chan has served as affiliate lead for SWE Durham Canada, and as past president and chair for the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers. And, like Uzochukwu-Denis’ approach, Chan said she felt empowered by a role model.

As a teen, Chan met a female Canadian astronaut whom she idolized, and credits that encounter with refocusing her studies on engineering. Chan was planning to study architecture because her dream was to help build buildings as a future colonist on Mars. As a teen, she was one of two students selected from Mississauga, Ontario, for a Young Space Ambassadors program to learn about space. She met Julie Payette, then an astronaut and now governor general of Canada, who told Chan the three requirements for going into space: a science degree, good health, and the ability to speak French.

Chan switched her sights from architecture to engineering and spent five years earning a double major in English and mechanical engineering. “I didn’t like statics, which eliminated civil engineering; I hate circuits and programming, so that eliminated electrical; I didn’t like chemistry, so that’s how I ended up in mechanical engineering,” she said. “I enjoy things that move.”

Joan Ferrell, a senior technical supervisor at Honeywell in the Czech Republic, recalled her own spooky — and outrageous — moment of preparing for a career fair as a busy mom. She got decked out — that’s when suits and dresses were the norm — hired a babysitter, and drove 45 minutes across town to the job fair, only to be told that no one would see her. Ferrell said she knew that she couldn’t use the exact “buzzwords” that the companies at the career fair were seeking. Employers were looking for resumes with words such as specialty divisions, data management, and home and building controls.

“They were buzzwords I couldn’t use, but I had strong software skills,” she said. Ferrell had worked in data communications and developing technologies to send data over telephone lines.

So Ferrell protested to the career-fair gatekeeper. “I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’” she recalled. “‘I have traveled all the way from the other side of town, gotten a babysitter, and you say you have hundreds of jobs available. And you’re telling me you don’t have anyone who’d even want to talk to me?’”

Her bold move worked. One hiring manager agreed to interview her, and she was hired on the spot.

As Ferrell advanced in her career and her four children grew up, she said she abandoned the idea of climbing the corporate ladder in favor of making a difference. “What’s more important is loving what I do,” she said.

Yet her first jump out of corporate America and into working as a contractor was admittedly scary.

“Contractor work conditions you to handle the unknown,” Ferrell said. “You’re conditioned to roll with everything. When you’re working, you live as though you don’t have a job, and when you’re not working, you live as though you do.

“For me, that meant that I saved, pinched, and stayed focused on working. Instead of being afraid to spend the money, I saved so that I could do things like home remodeling when I wasn’t working,” she said. “It taught me how to roll with things, and it taught me [to reassure myself] that I was going to survive, no matter what.”

Tell yourself a new story

The idea that fear is something to avoid, forget, or push aside won’t work in the long run.

“In my work with clients, we don’t ‘overcome’ fear,” said Beroset, an award-winning international journalist, former head of Hallmark’s innovation think tank, and, for nearly 12 years, the top public relations executive for Landmark, a personal development company operating in more than 20 countries.

“We integrate fear. Imagine gently holding it like a scared little puppy and sweet-talking it with love. When you acknowledge and accept fear’s presence, you can calm yourself and come from a higher energy bandwidth that will better serve you.”

Beroset said uncertainty comes in two distinct flavors: “A ‘fight-or-flight’ feeling that comes when you ask, ‘Who’s down that dark alley?’ and another where our brains turn uncertainty into a fear of looking foolish or stupid or unprepared or … fill in the blank, but it generally means you’re worried you’ll come across some way that is undesirable.

“You can tell them apart by stopping to consider what kind of question you ask yourself when you experience it,” Beroset said. “If you determine yours is the ‘dark alley’ flavor, remind yourself what a capable, competent person you are and look at your best options given the circumstances.

“Most of the time, however, you’ll find that there is no real, imminent danger involved, and your fear has more to do with how you’ll be perceived by others than anything else. In those cases, practice coming up with another interpretation of what’s going on. And then another.

“After you’ve riffed on a couple possible interpretations, land on the one that gives you the most power and tell yourself that narrative instead of the scary story you were feeling stuck with,” Beroset said.

“Here’s the beautiful thing: When you’re feeling good, you’re operating at a higher energy level,” she said. “That means you’re more likely to attract and inspire others to operate at a higher energy bandwidth.

“Your thoughts really do have a physiological effect on you and therefore others, so it pays to tend to them like you would flowers in a beautiful garden,” Beroset said. “Pull the spiky weeds, water and nurture the beautiful blooms, and over time, you’ll enjoy your life at a whole new level.”

“When you acknowledge and accept fear’s presence, you can calm yourself and come from a higher energy bandwidth that will better serve you.”

– Deb Beroset, CEO, Moxie Creative & Consulting

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