From Impostor Syndrome to Empowerment: Bella Bozzo on Women in Engineering

Engineering is a predominantly male field, so navigating the realm as a woman is not always easy. That is why there is POWE, Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering, where Isabella "Bella" Bozzo is the co-president. Meet Bella; from awkward locker room talk, discouraging professors, a strong case of impostor syndrome and feeling like she did not belong to reaching her fourth year with plans to pursue a PhD. Bella shares her experiences advocating for other female engineers, doing research and working for POWE.

Zeynep Kartal for Her Campus McGill (HC McGill): Hi Bella, could you tell me a bit about yourself?

Bella Bozzo: I’m a 4th-year mechanical engineering student graduating in the winter. And after that, I’m planning on going to graduate school and undertaking a PhD. My specialization is biomechanics; what I’m studying right now is spine stability and moves, trying to make a computer model of the spine. I actually spent my whole summer on a research project about that, which was pretty cool! But I’m not just a cool nerd, I also like to play sports on the side. This weekend I did the Montreal half marathon during the heatwave, it was extremely hot and that was a big challenge, but I really like the feeling of accomplishment.

HC McGill: That’s amazing, I would like to congratulate you on that! And of course, you’re also the co-president of POWE. What does POWE mean to you, and what does your position entail?

BB: POWE stands for Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering. It is a support system to encourage girls to study STEM and to help current female students find their place and a channel where they can find comfort and reassurance in a world where they're the minority. We have two portfolios: one more outreach directed, and one for women currently in the program. What we do through outreach is help girls know what STEM studies are by going to high schools. We also have a huge conference in February, last year I was VP Conference so I organized it. We had 135 girls come to McGill and we showed them what a day in the life of a McGill engineer is like. For women currently in the program, we offer a lot of workshops on building leadership skills and being comfortable in the workplace, and also various professional programs. This year, I’m one of the co-presidents and we are working on continuing to expand our portfolio.

HC McGill: We think what you’re doing at POWE is so great. Empowerment of women in STEM is very important. What are some setbacks/difficulties women in engineering might experience?

BB: A sexist mindset, not only from men but also women themselves. I feel the stigma within my department. You know how guys have their locker room talk, I feel like going into a computer lab very much feels like a locker room in the sense that it’s hard to participate in conversations sometimes. When your interests don't align with your peers', you feel like you're in the wrong place. Girls tend to stick together and guys do too, it’s not that we isolate ourselves on purpose but I think that’s something holding us back. We feel almost intimidated due to lack of women sometimes; not so much that I’m in my fourth year now but especially first year, I felt like I didn’t belong. I always felt like any assignment or project that I handed in wouldn't be good enough, because I felt I didn’t have the knowledge that some had, I felt guys knew so much about cars, engines and fighter jets and I knew nothing. I attributed it to the fact that they just learned these as kids but then I started to realize that they’re just genuinely interested in it.

HC McGill: I can definitely see how that would result in a feeling of isolation. Could you tell me more about that?

BB: Often, we look to our professors to be our role models, and when the field is predominantly male, there’s a sense of impostor syndrome and a feeling that you don’t belong. This is something that happened during my second year, I was struggling with a very difficult course, I couldn’t understand the material and I went to see the professor; I was telling him how on the midterms, there were questions about planes and cars and that I didn’t understand some of the terminology because it wasn’t something that was taught in the course but something assumed to be known. I told him I wasn’t the engineer who is traditionally interested in cars and planes and all the things you’d expect an engineer to be interested in and he looked at me and said “Then why are you in engineering?”. That definitely didn’t help the impostor syndrome. That’s also when I got more involved with POWE. It’s discouraging when people tell you that you don’t belong where you want to be. You think okay, maybe they’re right, a professor with many years of experience, they must know better than I do. That was hard to overcome that at first, but I’m still here, they haven’t got rid of me yet! And I’m planning on doing a PhD so I’m not going anywhere.

HC McGill: We’re glad you didn’t let discouraging words bring you down and that you stayed here! So, this is the last year of your undergrad. What events do you have planned for this year?

BB: Conferences, speed mentoring, speed networking, a professional mentorship program and a salary negotiation workshop. The conference is my favourite, and we have a lot of workshops, we’re doing one in October about salary negotiation. In the industry, a lot of times you might be scared to ask for more because you don’t think you necessarily deserve it or you’re selling yourself short, so we want to teach the right ways to go about negotiation.

HC McGill: Awesome! I hope our female engineer readers will take advantage of these! Is there anyone who inspires you?

BB: First of all, Michelle Obama. Also, Debbie Sterling, the person who invented GoldieBlox, a toy tailored to girls that teaches building fundamentally in the same way a boy would build with fundamentals while building a fire engine model. One of the things that encouraged me to go into engineering was her TED Talk, it gave me the courage to pursue STEM studies, she said even though it might seem like some people have a natural gift for engineering and that it comes easy to them, that’s not true. What you don’t see is what goes on behind closed doors, all the late nights spent studying at the library. It’s not easy for anyone, nobody’s born with it, everybody works for it. That was very motivational. She acknowledges that being a good engineer isn't a product of your genetics, but your hard work.

HC McGill: I’m not an engineer but that was motivational even for me. I suggest our readers who haven’t, to watch Debbie Sterling’s TED Talk. Another question I have for you, what keeps you motivated as a woman in a male-dominated field?

BB: I dislike the idea that my motivation to succeed comes from the fact that my gender impedes me. The smartest, most ingenious engineers I know are women, and I don’t think it has anything to do with their gender, but rather that they’re hardworking. We feel the need to prove ourselves and that results in working twice as hard. After three years, I learned that when I put my head to something and give it my 110%, I can achieve magic. Throughout the degree, a struggle is people questioning my judgment in the sense that when I present an answer, they’d ask me if I was sure I did it right and look it over, whereas if it’s a guy, they might just take it as fact. To overcome that, I just kept improving myself more and more. For our design class, our final project was to design a gearbox for a solar-powered aircraft. Out of the 42 teams, my team of 3 girls won the competition since we had the best design. We went from not knowing how to use a bearing to learning how to integrate all the components into an efficient design. It shows that when you set your mind, you can do it, it’s about how much you want it and how much of your energy and time you are willing to dedicate.

HC McGill: That is a such a good message. Is there anything else you would say to girls who are interested in pursuing a degree in engineering?

BB: Just do it. Engineering has always had the brotherhood stereotype but you’re the master of your own destiny. Don’t doubt yourselfIf you ever feel hesitant, there are always people there to help you. POWE is a great example, but there’s also friends, family. They want you to succeed and if success for you is succeeding in engineering, then, by all means, you can totally do it.


Image provided by interviewee.

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