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10 tips to boost confidence from a Mac Eng alumnaDecember 14, 2021

Sahar Kokaly, a McMaster Engineering alumna and software safety engineering manager at General Motors (GM) Canada gives her tips to bolster the confidence of women in STEM.

Delivering safe, clean, and efficient transportation. Continuing to learn and share. Being a role model for her two daughters, other girls, and helping them envision a career in STEM.

Sahar Kokaly knows the crucial ingredient to achieving success as a software safety engineering manager at GM Canada is rooted in the power of her “why.”

The adjunct assistant professor in computing and software – who earned three degrees, including her PhD in software engineering at McMaster University – dove into the automotive industry to explore her interest in autonomous software.

But exploring the purposes behind her work, Kokaly says, is what gives her unshakeable confidence. As an advocate for women in STEM, she wants other professionals to experience this power too.

Finding her why – an exercise by author Simon Sinek – is the first of her 10 tips for women in STEM on confidence and assertiveness in the workplace.  

“Why do you wake up in the morning? Why are you taking this degree? Where do you want to be or how do you want to change the world? The answers help you boost your confidence,” she said.

“We don't want to just go to work because we're getting paid. Getting paid is great, but you want to love what you're doing as well.”

Here’s a look at nine more ways to craft confidence and bolster one’s belief and ability to succeed.  

9. Smash that comfort zone 

Kokaly doesn’t buy into the saying, “fake it until you make it” – that wording seems to leave room for doubt. Instead, she encourages professionals to fully embrace leadership opportunities, take risks and demonstrate their strengths. 

“Be what you aspire to become and then convince people why you should be there.”

The goal is “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Kokaly recently took on a challenge herself: she represented GM Canada on Breakfast Television and spoke about STEM education for girls. 

“Challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone. People will help you. You’re going to get that rewarding feeling that’s really going to help you reach out for something else.”

A few months after Kokaly joined GM Canada on a full-time basis, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. A work-from-home model eliminated chances to network in-person.

8. Broaden your network

She recommends scheduling blocks of time in your calendar every week to find and connect with circles of professionals on LinkedIn or Twitter who are discussing material that sparks your interest. 

Kokaly also stressed taking the time to schedule 15-minute coffee chats with others to learn about their roles, expand your knowledge, and share your own story to build further connections.

7. Knowledge is power

There’s assurance, Kokaly says, in knowing your stuff: in being able to field questions, address concerns, and go deep into technical details.  

“When you’re knowledgeable about your subject matter, no one is going to argue with you.”  

But being an expert means a lot of reiterating. She recommends making boiler-plate explanations for common questions that fall in your subject matter, writing down explanations, and polishing your responses.

“You will come across as self-assured and knowledgeable every time anyone asks you for this information.”

6. Beware perfection: the ‘confidence killer’ 

On the flip side, Kokaly says, it’s a confidence-builder to say when you need help and ask questions. Faking expertise doesn’t help serve you down the road – it only sets the stage for a collapse. 

Being honest, being yourself, and being vulnerable are also all ways to build trust with your colleagues. 

“Allow yourself to try something out and learn from that failure. The beauty is that when you fail fast and early, you have a lot less to lose.”

5. Communicate clearly 

Body language and the words you choose matter. That’s why Kokaly recommends tackling difficult hurdles, such as eliminating filler and weaker words (like “just” and “probably”) and ensuring you get a seat at the table – not in the corner of a room. 

“You have to advocate for yourself – no one is going to do that for you.”

Being transparent and clear about your needs, expectations, and career goals in your relationships will contribute to helping you progress on your career path.

4. Invest in yourself 

It’s also important to recognize your own value and invest your progress. Kokaly recommends enrolling in online courses, attending conferences and events, and adding those boosters to your resume.  

Keeping self care in the mix, she says, also ensures you’re taking time to feel good about the person you’re presenting to others: someone with tremendous worth and unique ideas.  

“No one is giving you a seat at the table to have the same opinion as everybody else at that table. You’re valuable.”

3. Be vocal, even virtually

Being bold and sharing ideas are among Kokaly’s pivotal building blocks for padding your confidence over time. 

But as some workplaces continue to operate in the digital realm, it can be difficult to find space in a virtual meeting to interject. 

That’s why Kokaly recommends taking advantage of chat boxes to share your opinions and ideas. Even liking comments and replying in those discussions, she said, showcase your participation and who you are.

It’s also critical, she says, to notice when others aren’t getting the opportunity to express their thoughts. 

“Make sure that you’re standing up for diversity and inclusion, make sure you speak up. People will really appreciate that and this will really demonstrate your leadership of the company.”

2. Have patience

While practicing these tips are important, Kokaly says, a key part is learning when attempts miss the mark and moving past those moments. 

“Don’t let it break you. You’re going to have a lot more experiences in the future that you can demonstrate yourself in a more positive way.”

She says making time for reflection will give you chances to find out your big wins, what worked well and what didn’t, and identify how you can improve.  

1. Champion other women

Seek mentors and, in the future, mentor when you can, says Kokaly. The engineer knows herself how rewarding both sides of the experience can be and relishes the opportunity to help others develop.  

“We want to make sure we’re supporting each other, that other women’s ideas are heard.” 

“I find that the more women that can act as role models for the younger generation, the more we’ll get girls interested in STEM.”