BOZEMAN — In a working world in which men still dominate the fields of engineering and computer science, women need to be able to channel their inner superhero to break down gender barriers and reach their full potential.

That was the message that Margaret Mitchell had for a room packed with female students at Montana State University for the 16th annual Women in Engineering Dinner, which was held Friday to coincide with International Women's Day.

Margaret Mitchell was the keynote speaker at the 16th annual Women in Engineering Dinner on Friday, March 8. (MSU photo by Marshall Swearingen)

"You need to be able to tap into your superpowers," said Mitchell, an MSU alumna whose career has included heading up information technology for American Express.

While giving practical advice about dealing with conflict on the workplace, investing in new skills and inspiring others, Mitchell recounted her 25-year journey in the corporate and startup worlds after earning her bachelor's in computer science from MSU in 1988.

"I can't imagine having a better career, one that has allowed me to follow my curiosity, meet smart people and have flexibility. And the money's not bad either," she said with a laugh.

One highlight was leading the launch of American Express's first website in the mid-90s. At the time, most people within the company "didn't think the internet was that big of a deal," she said. Her small team was marginal and somewhat obscure within the company. "We were like hobbits in the Shire."

When the internet took off, however, so did her career. In five years, she went from being a senior engineer to the company's vice president of software development.

That success, combined with supportive mentors, helped propel her through limitations that often confront women in the upper echelons of the corporate world. But when the company re-organized in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, her world was turned upside down, she said.

Faced with new supervisors who didn't share her leadership style and incidents that demonstrated her new limits in the company, she was forced to reflect on whether her approach to her work was also holding her back.

Despite having led multiple initiatives within the company, she realized that she often fell into a pattern of being a "sidekick" — the standby who supports the superhero, she said. That realization led her to cultivate her own superhero strengths.

"It's not bad to be a sidekick," she said. But sometimes finding success in the workplace means asking tough questions, initiating discussions, defending one's ideas and championing change.

Now the CIO of a medical technology startup in Scottsdale, Arizona, Mitchell is a frequently invited speaker at the Grace Hopper Conference, the world's largest gathering of women technologists. She earned her master's in international management from Arizona State University in 1999.

The more than 400 guests at the dinner included MSU students, faculty and alumni, more than a dozen high school students, and a Girl Scout troop from Butte. The event, which is organized through the Women in Engineering program in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, is the primary venue for MSU alumni and other female role models to share experiences and advice with female students.

"This dinner is our opportunity to come together as a community and celebrate being a woman in STEM," said Christine Foreman, associate dean for student success in the engineering college.

Mitchell advised MSU students to get involved with student organizations.

"It's exciting to see how many opportunities there are to be involved at this university," she said. Being part of club is an opportunity to develop leadership skills and have fun outside the classroom with fellow engineers and computer scientists, she added.

"Being a superhero doesn't mean going it alone," she said. "It means bringing others along with you."

- By Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service -