How Others’ Doubt Increased My Self-Worth

By Diya Dwarakanath, SWE Editorial Board

Women in engineering fields, including all who identify as women, often define their self-worth based on others’ judgments. We need to reinvent our self-worth by trusting our own judgment more. A few years into my career as a research and development (R&D) engineer, a vice president at my company taught me this: Companies hire engineers and value them for their judgment. Thus, I needed to apply and share my insight at work.

Embracing my self-worth was a journey of choices, including relying on myself to assess my value. I navigated a setback, learned from mentors and peers in my network, and put my self-reflection within the larger context of the system. I emerged with a stronger internal self that (for the most part) withstands the winds of external situations.

Choose influencers wisely

Trusting your own judgment can be hard to do for an early-career engineer who may not yet have an established baseline of making judgment calls or decisions. However, if we insist on allowing others to influence our self-worth, then we must choose to give that power to people who will treat it responsibly. If you want to set a baseline for decisions, ask friends, co-workers, colleagues, or managers who you respect and whose judgment you trust.

Support from professionals who you know and trust can help develop your sense of self-worth. It turns out this is valid globally. “It’s crucial to have an encouraging manager or lead who trusts you and gives you a fair opportunity instead of making assumptions about your abilities,” says Shruti Nandi. Based in India, Nandi is an early-career manufacturing engineer, freelance graphic designer, and social media lead for the Society of Women Engineers mentoring committee and Asian Connections affinity group.

Challenge yourself to use your judgment instead of playing it safe, and observe the outcome. If the outcome is successful, it will improve your reliance on your own judgment. If the outcome isn’t what you hoped for, you can learn from it. Trusting your judgment is a risk well worth taking.

Cathy Meyn, a retired corporate director of programs at Northrop Grumman, software engineer, and current chair-elect of the mentoring committee, agrees. Based in California, Meyn explains how “my boss’s boss, a man who became my advocate, constantly set me challenges that reinforced my ability to take risks successfully. This gave me a start at confidence that grew over time.” Another way to put this is to challenge yourself to use your judgment instead of playing it safe, and observe the outcome. If the outcome is successful, it will improve your reliance on your own judgment. If the outcome isn’t what you hoped for, you can learn from it. Trusting your judgment is a risk well worth taking.

Discovering my self-worth

In a vivid moment of my nascent career, I surprised myself by knowing my inner self-worth. I reported to a toxic manager. Long past my threshold for tolerance, I finally handed in my two weeks’ notice. His boss was an engineering director who I respected and whose opinion I valued. But I was naive. Over coffee, I asked for any parting wisdom or feedback. The director told me that I wasn’t well-suited to be an engineer, and perhaps I should try an alternate career. I was devastated, especially because she had previously supported me.

I struggled with the disappointment of someone I respected telling me to give up, but deep in my core, I rejected her evaluation. I knew I could do the job. It also helped that another company offered me an R&D job, which I accepted. What really mattered, though, was the calm faith I had in myself. I evaluated the feedback. I realized the director had a limited view: She relied primarily on the word of my (toxic) manager.

I concluded that the director’s feedback was irresponsible. As an engineering director who publicly championed women in engineering, she could have gathered the facts from all sides before suggesting something that could profoundly impact someone’s career. Perhaps she underestimated her power to influence.

I learned four things that day:

  • Being in a position of authority doesn’t automatically make you a leader.
  • Even with someone I respect, it’s important to assess others’ feedback on my professional abilities.
  • In any leadership role I attain, I’d trust my direct reports, and I would also do my utmost to stay curious and seek input from multiple sources before evaluating personnel.
  • I had a core belief in myself that I hadn’t recognized until that moment, which was the best lesson that day.

I wish I could say how I developed that instinctive self-esteem. It may have happened over time because of the positive support I’ve received throughout my engineering, technology, and research experiences from family, friends, college classmates, and professors, among others. This experience was my first instance of questionable feedback and working in a toxic environment. My inexperience with these frustrating realities was likely why the situation hit me so hard.

I decided that I don’t want my self-worth to be a sine wave, where the peaks and troughs are dependent on the whims of others.

One month after the coffee conversation, I had switched into my dream engineering job at a clinical diagnostic startup. We were developing a cutting-edge product and platform capable of diagnosing sepsis significantly faster than the gold standard. My teammates and I were designing and developing a complex diagnostic cartridge, applying the principles of thermodynamics and micro-/meso-fluidics. I reported to a highly technical, self-aware, and adept manager who was impressed by my capabilities. I felt the whiplash of swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other.

So, who do I believe? Am I terrible, or am I great? I decided that I don’t want my self-worth to be a sine wave, where the peaks and troughs are dependent on the whims of others.

Changing the engineering culture

The Dutch inspirational speaker Alexander den Heijer is often quoted as having said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” Below is some food for thought along these lines.

Early in their careers, many women engineers overwork to combat the nagging self-doubt that asks, “Am I good enough?” (The answer is yes.) Meyn says of her early days, “Initially I was driven to work 24/7. My self-worth was directly tied to how good a job I did. [My advocate] helped me to see the difference between work commitment and ‘being the job.’” Learning to “honor all parts of myself,” as Meyn says, is a common challenge.

Perhaps this drive to overwork arises from the engineering culture itself. According to sociologists Mary Blair-Loy, Ph.D., and Erin Cech, Ph.D., STEM culture can perpetuate inequality.¹ Based on their research, Dr. Blair-Loy and Dr. Cech coined the term “work devotion schema” for the idea that “excellence requires undivided commitment to work.”

Alternatively, if your self-worth has ever been shaken by all the “brilliance” you see around you, then that could be the result of the “scientific excellence” schema. This term, also coined by Dr. Blair-Loy and Dr. Cech, refers to an ideology that “excellence is based on the brilliance of individuals” and their assertiveness in promoting their own accomplishments. The researchers argue that this ideology is not inherent to STEM disciplines, but rather, is an insidious cultural belief by STEM professionals across all demographics. Nandi states, “We should broaden the cultural definition of [an] engineer to move past the idea that only exceptionally smart people become engineers. It’s important to recognize that intelligence is not limited to any single profession.”

I agree. It is time to trust your own judgment about how well you are doing at your job and your strengths as a professional.

About the Author

Diya Dwarakanath (she/her) works as a freelance science journalist, writing about engineering from her industry experience. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.S. and an M.S. in biomedical engineering. Dwarakanath received SWE’s Ada I. Pressman Memorial Scholarship in 2016. A SWE member since 2009, she currently serves as a writing lead on the SWE mentoring committee and as a member of the SWE editorial board.

1 Does Greater Diversity in STEM Require Challenging STEM Professionals’ Beliefs About Science Itself?

Additional Resources
• A Growing Consensus?,
• Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,
• State of Women in Engineering 2024,
• What Is Your ‘Elevator Speech’ When You Retire?,
• Dispelling the Myth of the Math Prodigy,
• Young Topologist Solves Ages-Old Knotty Problem,