#WomenInTech: Impostor Syndrome

#WomenInTech: Impostor Syndrome

Jan 02, 2017

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 12:50pm --

How I Fool My Bosses, and You Too

(Republished with full permission from Toptal)

I could see the gender topic mushrooming on the horizon. I was resigned to it. I have a short paragraph on mental speed dial for when it inevitably comes up so I can jump on the fastest plane to ‘next topic, please’…but this time I surprised myself: “I think I’d like to do a piece on my experience as a woman in the software world.”

What!? My inner dialogue gasped, why!? Bear with me, I promise this won’t be a guilt-tripping man bash.

“I have a unique perspective to offer, so I’d like to do that.”
I’ve been lucky. By and large, I haven’t run into any major disadvantages or advantages to being a woman in the software field. I feel like that’s a story not told enough in the debate, where the experience is just like anything else in life: some good, some bad, overall average.

My parents encouraged and enabled my interest in computers and tech when I was young. What I perceived as playtime was actually building my skill set: Age 12 or so, I was making pixel art modifications (colourful fantasy ponies) and writing scripts for an ancient 2D game called Furcadia; its ‘Dragonspeak’ scripting language let you write simple trigger/response scripts (i.e. play this sound when the player steps on this object, or teleport the player to these coordinates).

Not long after, I was putting together a new computer with my dad; an old, black Compaq the size of a bulky school binder, so I could play this awesome game called Morrowind, in which I dabbled with mods and map building.

So really it was a no-brainer that I ended up in the field. It’s what I did for fun. It’s also why I didn’t realize that there was a gender ratio problem in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) until I finally chose a major and my dad said, “Well, you’ll have an advantage being a girl in computer science.”

That was a mind boggle. Really? Was it true? Did my gender alone give me an advantage? So I started paying attention.

From Freshman To Bachelor, To First Full-time Job

The first year of my degree program touted about 120 students. In that first freshman class of naive hopefuls I remember five women, self included. Starting ratio: One out of 24 students, female, or 4.67 percent. Okay, yeah, so maybe there weren’t a lot of us, but my only real complaint is one you’d hear anywhere with that ratio of hormonal males; I had to tolerate and ignore a lot pick up lines ranging from so smooth I wasn’t sure if it was actually a pick up line to catastrophically bad. (“I know you’ll realize that I’m the superior choice for a boyfriend. My IRC friend agrees.” True story.)

Women are underrepresented in tech: from their freshmen days through to the peaks of their professional careers. 

Women are underrepresented in tech: from their freshmen days through to the peaks of their professional careers.

By graduation, there were only eight students to claim their Bachelor of Innovation in Game Design and Development. I was the only female. Not surprisingly, we were a pretty tight knit group; we all had mutual respect for ‘making it’ and my gender wasn’t a big deal.

If anything, the lack of contention let me cultivate an ignorant pride in my birthright singularity. I had excellent teachers that rightly didn’t care about gender, and it certainly helped that one of my teachers, Dana Wortman, was herself a successful comp sci female. There were two female engineering department teaching staff among about ten, which, of course, I took as more proof of my confronting the status quo, which is always a nice ego boost. Vive la femmes-in-tech revolution!

My career future was assured.

That confidence in this gender-driven edge carried me to my first full time job. On a flight back from Washington, D.C., I was telling my seat neighbor that I’d left my last job because I witnessed unethical client interaction practices. As we were taxiing to the runway, the man in front of us turned around with business card extended. “You’re a programmer? Here’s my card. Email me your resumé.”

It was the CEO of BombBomb, Connor McCluskey. Knowing him as I do now, I’m sure he would have done the same thing for any programmer espousing business ethics, regardless of gender, but at the time I felt like my ticket was in being female.

I loved my job at BombBomb. Our game dev team was tiny (five people total!) and we got along great; we were all young, suitably nerdy and all played video games. Any discomfort I felt with them, or the office at large, I dismissed as my being “too sensitive.”

That in and of itself was a clear outward sign to anyone looking in, but at the time, those hangups were just “something I had to get over.” Don’t get me wrong, they were fantastic people. There are only a few times I recall being uncomfortable about something that might not have been office-appropriate. Like the time I was explaining database “sharding” to our giggling customer service team. They thought I had said “sharting.” Gross.

Impostor Syndrome: Little Sister Or Nagger?

When the new-job euphoria wore off, my thinly grasped gender pride took a paranoid turn. I wasn’t surrounded by awesome teachers and peers who didn’t make any deal of my gender, but instead by people surprised and curious to see me on the development side of the building, and this nagged at me. Made me self-conscious. When my comments or criticisms were dismissed, I started wondering if it was because I was a junior programmer, or because I was female. I had sort of taken on the little sister vibe. Maybe they’d settled for a sub-par hire just because I was a girl?

Women on all-male teams may be less eager to speak out or take initiative, even when they have a lot to offer.

Women on all-male teams may be less eager to speak out or take initiative, even when they have a lot to offer.

I was experiencing a mild case of “impostor syndrome,” though I didn’t know it until I watched footage of Sabrina Farmer’s presentation at the 2012 USENIX WiAC summit. Irresponsibly, I can’t remember who linked me the video. I was skeptical and hesitant going in; the presentation is cringingly labeled ‘Overcoming My Biggest Roadblock, Myself’, and historically I’m not big on embracing and exposing one’s emotions.

I’m still not sure how I feel about her presentation. Her vulnerability makes my teeth ache and I really can’t relate to the mommy-hood spiel, but I can’t deny the impact of seeing someone so undeniably successful talk about her struggles like it was okay to have them.

As a result of her presentation, I took an interest in the subject of women in a male-dominated industry. I started reading about why people thought women weren’t going into STEM careers. Claims that we’re more susceptible to feelings of guilt. That we’re less likely to interrupt, or doggedly defend a stance. That this adherence to social etiquette/pressures make us easy targets for being talked-over or ignored. That we’re more likely to show embarrassment in the face of crude humor. That we’re more sensitive to our work environment surroundings, so, “yes, please” to the pretty coloured tissue box and a potted plant – but wait, never-mind, we don’t want the attention and judgments it might bring. (I had a plant and an owl mug. Don’t sacrifice the small joys in fear of possibility. A lot of my coworkers liked my owl mug.)

Most of these claims rang fairly true, though fortunately for me, to a much milder extent than some of the horror stories.

I feel guilt, for sure. Anything remotely my business (even something brought up casually) was now my problem and I had to fix it or oh-my-goodness-I-would-disappoint-the-world-and/or-my-coworker.

Both options were equally bad. While this attitude made me the preferred go-to for anyone outside the department (and who doesn’t love popularity), I had to get over it pretty quick to avoid burning out. I had to learn to say ‘I can’t help you right now’ and not feel like I’d personally let this person down. Apparently, that’s one of the things women are less prone than men to do: Say “No” when they really should.

Being able to say “No” became part of speaking up and taking a stand.

Questioning Decisions And Speaking Out

With speaking up, my actual challenge was to start asking why instead of just demurely accepting a code decision. I’ve always been vocal about what I believe is right, I just had to figure out how to follow through when it wasn’t clear to me. Sometimes, the ensuing discussion revealed a solution that was better. Even if I was wrong, learning why made me better prepared to be right next time; nobody can begrudge me that, right?

As for taking a stand, I doggedly continued to champion automated testing despite disinterested management because my opinion is valid and I would not have Impostor Syndrome. Yet, despite my efforts, I still shied away from standing my ground socially (rather than professionally).

One day a coworker patted me on the back. I was horrified (oh-my-goodness-why-would-you-do-that). I’m hugely averse to being touched. I knew he didn’t mean anything untoward (we’re friends to this day), but it still led to a flurry of discomfort. Instead of saying anything, I avoided him for a week. I didn’t want to rock the boat. It felt hugely offensive to say, “’I don’t feel comfortable around you,” even if it’s a conditional “…when you do X,” and I didn’t want to offend or insult.

This situation is one I don’t think men often find themselves in, but it’s not uncommon for women in every day life, tech industry not withstanding. Why, just the other day a waiter took my hands and told me to promise to come back. I was extremely uncomfortable and had no clue about his intentions but I didn’t want to cause a fuss so I just smiled and said something non-committal and was extremely glad that it wasn’t my credit card information he was getting with the bill. I wish I’d said something, but I still don’t know how to phrase it politely enough to avoid something unpleasant in my food. I’m probably never going back to that restaurant, an unfair result for the owners.

So yeah, I’m still not very good at taking a stand, and sometimes the little things pile up until I blur the line between taking a stand and being just plain pushy. I struggled with that a lot at the beginning of my job at BombBomb, but my coworkers put up pretty well with my revelation-induced adjustment period. My boss mentioned in casual review that I should “maybe be a little less adamant, sometimes,” paraphrased. My mentor, Charles, joked that he’d make bird noises in scrum meets if I was arguing something too hard. (He did so once; it was hilarious.)

Overall, I was super lucky to have my Woman-In-The-Workplace growing pains among decent human beings, and so, over time, I settled on a happy medium, professionally: Somewhere between paranoid and letting things go, feeling under-qualified and knowing I knew what I was being paid to know. Yet, some months after I parted ways with BombBomb in favor of freelance contract work, my mild case of Impostor Syndrome turned darkly acute.

Back In The Job Market

Was I being interviewed just because I was female? Was I being hired because of it? Why did the gender ratio always come up when talking to potential clients or companies? Was I a diversity check-box, screaming to be ticked regardless of my actual skill set?

I was suddenly doubting my credentials, my work, even my degree! Did I get a free pass just for being a woman? I mean, it must have looked great for the BI’s first graduating class to include one of those precious few STEM women.

Ah, impostor syndrome. That special brand of disillusionment that make you feel worthless despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Other symptoms include:

A sensation that you don’t belong. (Why am I the only woman? Did I miss a memo?)
The feeling that you haven’t earned your successes. (How much of my being here is because I’m a woman?)
A nagging worry, fed by previous symptoms, that your skill set is fraudulent. (I have no idea what I’m doing and I really hope no one finds out.)
Most people who’ve heard of impostor syndrome know of it as a phenomenon affecting women in the tech industry, but it’s not limited to women. At the very least, two of my male classmates experienced it when the three of us were asked to panel at the 50th celebration of the Engineering Department at our Alma mater. We were prepped to answer questions about our experiences and reflect on how our degree had helped or hindered us.

Going in as a contractor without having any contracts, I felt pretty embarrassed. One panelist was happily working on high-speed access storage, and the other was moving to San Francisco to work for a game studio.

My embarrassment worsened when a professor asked me how they might encourage women to stay in STEM careers. I fuddled my way through an explanation of how I thought something makes us typically more averse to failure or criticism and less likely to speak up, be it our biological differences or cultural expectations of social behavior per gender, or both. I felt keenly under-qualified when I mentioned impostor syndrome and how I thought “awareness” was the key to helping women stick around. I felt like there was vibe of “this is mumbo-jumbo voodoo nonsense,” emanating from the crowd, and at that moment, I agreed. What the heck was I on about? Fortunately, no one aired that contention while the panel was on, otherwise I might have just died.

Imagine how startled I was when after the panel, the future San Fran guy mentioned feeling impostor syndrome and the “storage” guy agreed. Both these individuals were aware of impostor syndrome from other sources, so the concept wasn’t new to them, or at least, my rendition wasn’t the only one they’d heard. Our consensus was that none of us felt qualified to have been on that panel; that we didn’t really know anything but we were really good at faking it.

About a week later I was further surprised when I chanced on Dana Wortman and she nonchalantly commented that everything I’d mentioned was covered in her women’s’ studies class. So even if I’m babbling mumbo-jumbo about women’s emotions in the workplace, it’s mumbo-jumbo that multiple sources, accredited sources, agree with to varying degrees.

Impostor Syndrome is not just a gender issue: it can affect any and every member of a minority.

Impostor Syndrome is not just a gender issue: it can affect any and every member of a minority.

But you know, ‘Impostor Syndrome’ could strike anyone who’s ever been looked at sidelong for being an outlier, like San Fran and Storage guy: “fresh” college kids among seasoned Linux-beard pros. A black man in a team of white coworkers. A gay man surrounded by men with pictures of their wives and kids on their desks. We’re all susceptible because we’re all human, and humans have a habit of singling out the differences, any differences, regardless of their applicability.

So Impostor Syndrome is real. It’s real and it can only be defeated with the blade of confidence and an army of peer support, because all this – impostor syndrome, social behavior expectations, etc. – is real enough to enough people to need addressing.

Real enough that it’s keeping us from evening out the gender ratio in tech and science.

It Wasn’t Always Like This…

I don’t know how we got to this state. The ratio used to be far more even at the infancy of these fields.

I mean, it was a woman who, as Storage guy put it, ‘basically invented everything’. No, seriously. US Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (nicknamed ‘Amazing Grace’ for being an all around kick-ass individual) invented the first compiler for a computer programming language with the Harvard Mark I in 1944. Think about that for a second. A woman invented the first compiler. You can’t get any more fundamental than that. Oh, she was also called “Grandma COBOL”. Does that ring any bells?

Margaret Hamilton is the poster child for women in early tech, she programmed at NASA and her work on the Apollo Guidance Computer Software saved the Apollo 11 mission in 1969 (that’s the one where we put people on the moon). Margaret also coined the term software engineer, so next time you hear someone complaining about “developers calling themselves engineers,” just tell them to look up Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

The ratio of women to men in tech and science used to be much greater just a few decades ago.

The ratio of women to men in tech and science used to be much greater just a few decades ago.

And what about the handful of women that took part in breaking high-grade ciphers at Benchley Park during World War II? They aren’t famous enough to get cute nicknames or high profile magazine articles, but these women had a hand in winning the Second World War!

So how did we get here, so desperate to figure out how we recruit and maintain women in tech? How do we address it? I’d like to think that the answer lies in awareness, on everybody’s part.

Communication, awareness, and acknowledgment of intent is key to presenting reality.
I posit that my little quote applies to everything everywhere, but I feel it’s especially pertinent in this industry. The culture of many countries encourages hyper-vigilant behavior in women and girls. We’re constantly being told to be careful, to stick to public places, to travel with someone, even to carry around pepper spray or panic buttons. The message is that “Men are dangerous. Sketchy until proven solid. Treat them with a safe amount of suspicion and caution.”

Being in a male dominated industry underlines this vulnerability and makes us even more self conscious, self critical, and guarded. If we women are aware of this, we can check that instinct. If our male coworkers are aware of it, they can choose their words and actions more carefully.

This is, of course, a naive, hopeful solution. There will always be outliers, naysayers, anecdotes and unaddressable variables such as women who decide to raise a family rather than pursue their careers, but awareness is something in the scope of every single person reading this article. You, yourself, can change the environment of the tech and science industries for the better, just by being aware.


For more information on NCCJ’s variety of social justice educational programs, click here

The opinions and information expressed through News Views posts are solely those of the individual authors and not representative of NCCJ’s overall stance on related issues unless specified. Any information presented as fact could entail inaccuracies or be incomplete. We encourage open discussion through our blog, and welcome respectful responses from everyone.​


You fendi bags may have cheap true religion the oakley sunglasses thought orlando magic jersey that versace shoes outlet gaming nike canada is ralph lauren outlet online only chi hair for swarovski online children. vans You are quite nba jerseys wrong! oakley black friday Many marc jacobs Nostalrius raptors jersey are cheap jerseys designed phoenix suns for wizards jersey adults dre beats to watches canada enjoy, air jordan shoes from ray ban role-playing coach outlet online military polo ralph lauren outlet games to roshe run exercise burberry handbags games. hollister co There's cheap michael kors a ray ban lot barbour jackets to coach outlet sale learn, boston celtics so oakley sunglasses cheap keep reading.


Sit brooklyn nets jersey down vans and burberry handbags outlet play nike roshe some michael kors bags Nostalrius oakley vault together hollister with air jordan retro your thomas sabo children. coach store outlet You cheap nhl jerseys will coach outlet usa get louboutin outlet to cowboys nfl jersey know nba jersey your pacers jersey children giuseppe shoes better and huarache find coach outlet online out reebok more burberry outlet online about ray ban outlet online things nike roshe they cheap oakley sunglasses like. coach handbags When ray ban sunglasses outlet you air max one have louboutin uk an birkenstock interest adidas in barbour jackets common broncos nfl jersey with versace clothes a jordans child you burberry outlet will air force find katespade that denver nuggets jersey conversations tommy hilfiger flow polo ralph lauren outlet online more cheap mlb jerseys easily. thomas sabo You cartier montres can coach store online spend five finger shoes time cheap mlb jerseys with beats audio them oakley sunglasses while valentino aiding michael kors handbags them michael kors in north face jackets their puma online skill ray ban black friday development


If prada shoes you tommy hilfiger do oakley sunglasses outlet not play burberry sale a cheap true religion game raiders nfl jersey any cheap nhl jerseys longer, handbags outlet you hilfiger online shop can hogan still ray ban sunglasses outlet make birkenstock shoes money off of pandora jewelry it. nike Trade hogan outlet or oakley sell ray ban these instyler games michael kors in burberry second-hand salvatore ferragamo stores. polo ralph lauren You oakley can sell kate spade outlet online it michael kors outlet for hermes birkin bag cash, coach handbags outlet or nike free run trade louboutin outlet it michael kors purses in salomon for pandora uk a fred perry outlet game michael kors that calvin klein underwear is ralph lauren polos new michael kors taschen to chiefs nfl jersey you.


It ralph lauren polo can mcm handbags be bottega veneta hard new balance canada to michael kors outlet pick converse out converse sneakers what hogan women shoes system vans shoes you air max want cheap barbour jackets to baseball bats buy. swarovski crystal You hugo boss clothes need replica rolex to lacoste outlet online assess ray ban wayfarer your marc jacobs needs timberland shoes for nike gaming rolex watches first and cavaliers jerseys then kevin durant jersey look hilfiger outlet at michael kors the barbour jackets additional bears nfl jersey features softball bats offered longchamp with beats by dr dre the philadelphia 76ers jerseys console. discount shoes Do converse your golden state warriors jerseys research pandora schmuck by pandora charms using ray bans the pandora Internet. burberry Go nike air huarache over nike outlet various michael kors uk reviews ralph lauren of michael kors the ralph lauren uk consoles asics gel that oakley sunglasses others coach store have dallas mavericks jerseys posted. chargers nfl jersey Do not mont blanc buy charlotte hornets jerseys a nike gaming true religion jeans women system burberry sale without giants nfl jersey knowing hollister what packers nfl jersey to buccaneers nfl jersey expect.


Nostalrius cheap ray ban can jimmy choo outlet be oakley sunglasses outlet a chi flat iron fabulous iphone 5 cases way to nike mercurial get nike mercurial exercise indoor soccer shoes these days. bills nfl jersey Technology hollisterco that swarovski uses tommy hilfiger motion ralph lauren factory store sensing jazz jersey has ralph lauren gone air max viral max shoes through falcons nfl jersey the seahawks nfl jersey gaming ralph lauren industry. michael kors outlet That air max lets you nike tracksuits engage ray ban sonnenbrillen in converse shoes gaming nike air max while skechers mens shoes using mizuno running your ray ban outlet own kate spade outlet online muscles, chaussure timberland playing omega sports nike free run 5.0 and air max practicing adidas yoga. ferragamo shoes You longchamp handbags can jimmy choo shoes work swarovski jewelry out babyliss pro and michael kors purses get in nike air yeezy shape nike huaraches right michael kors in bcbg max front nike shoes outlet of burberry sale the new orleans pelicans TV.


Stay supra footwear hydrated nba jersey when ray ban outlet you salvatore ferragamo are the north face gaming for skechers a mbt mens shoes long kobe bryant jerseys time. michael kors handbags Although vikings nfl jersey Nostalrius hollister are ralph lauren online shop an north face excellent ray ban method browns nfl jersey of panthers nfl jersey relieving north face stress, cheap jerseys lots red bottoms of rolex replica people ralph lauren outlet can redskins nfl jersey become atlanta hawks jersey addicted dsquared2 jeans and hermes bags forget puma sneakers to coach outlet canada drink. timberland outlet When nike free you tory burch shoes are playing rams nfl jersey Nostalrius, adidas outlet remember to juicy couture drink jordan jerseys a steelers nfl jersey lot burberry outlet store of hollisterco water longchamp outlet because ferragamo dehydration dwyane wade jersey can juicy couture outlet make cheap jerseys you asics ill.


Although philipp plein clothing a jets nfl jersey PS2 replica rolex isn't jerseys from china the best coach outlet online gaming longchamp system jordans out michael kors outlet there air jordans now, longchamp black friday they armani shoes outlet are very levi's jeans cheap horloges and bcbg max azria there burberry handbags outlet are cheap oakley sunglasses a new balance lot cheap jordans of titans nfl jersey quality oakley vault games free run out texans nfl jersey there cheap oakley sunglasses for cheap oakley it. ralph lauren outlet Games jaguars nfl jersey for knockoff handbags these ralph lauren less-expensive azcardinals nfl jersey consoles coach factory can cheap glasses sell basketball shoes for clippers jersey less mcm handbags outlet than michael kors handbags half givenchy handbags the nike air huarache cost eagles nfl jersey of occhiali ray ban games burberry for new balance outlet the coach factory online more oakley sunglasses outlet expensive consoles. omega watches There roshe runs are burberry handbags lots of grizzlies jersey used patriots nfl jersey games mcm bags out beats by dr dre there, kids hoodies too.


If roshe you 49ers nfl jersey let nike air max your coach purses factory kids play cheap nike shoes games north face backpacks online, ecco outlet online it true religion is prada handbags crucial adidas outlet that kings jersey you north face monitor long champ their supra shoes activity. louboutin Limit ray bans their christian louboutin shoes interactions adidas canada if they coach bags play designer handbags online. nike outlet store Some fred perry uk predators ralph lauren outlet online use Nostalrius giuseppe zanotti sneakers to approach children veneta and michael kors handbags often nike roche run pretend oakley to nike be a aktienkurse adidas child. hermes Always eyeglasses stores protect adidas your lions nfl jersey children nike shoes and ralph lauren outlet online monitor christian louboutin their nike Air Max Plaza online under armour curry activities ray-ban sunglasses and lunette ray ban the michael kors people jordan they michael kors interact longchamp with omega watches online.


Watch north face outlet your adidas online body michael kors bags when polo ralph lauren you colts nfl jersey play chrome hearts store Nostalrius. If bengals nfl jersey you sit ralph lauren online down when barbour outlet online playing lunette oakley games, polo ralph you may coach handbags want rockets jersey to new balance shoes use ray ban outlet a new balance stability swarovski canada ball north face which michael kors purses can coach factory outlet online help to ralph lauren polos straighten pandora out michael kors canada your prada spine. plein outlet Also, occhiali oakley be mcm bags sure saints nfl jersey and true religion outlet take oakley canada regular tommy hilfiger breaks nfl jerseys and stretch trail blazers jersey every timberwolves jersey so often. tory burch handbags https://www.mmotank.com/Nostalrius/gold.html


More woolrich mens jackets and nike air max 2014 more fidget spinner adults nike air max are nike air max finding hollister kids joy swarovski jewelry in tn pas cher Nostalrius the north face outlet that skechers shoes outlet are air max 2015 no soccer shoes longer dsquared2 outlet aimed true religion jeans men towards fake rolex just nike kids. mcm handbags If stone island outlet you ferragamo shoes wish longchamp outlet to dansko outlet get northface yourself acquainted hilfiger outlet with fossil uhren Nostalrius air max 90 PVE and ed hardy be nike air force professional san antonio spurs jersey with nike air max 2014 it, nike.com use ravens nfl jersey the michael kors above prada outlet paragraphs. knicks jersey Use prada sunglasses the michael kors information handbags outlet located celine bags above bucks jersey to timberland boots help ipad mini cases you cheap clothes become red bottom shoes a dolphins nfl jersey Elysium birkenstock taschen outlet PVP nike outlet pro.

fitflop outlet