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Impostor Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community

Impostor Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community is a guest post by Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora. Mary Gardiner is the Director of Operations and Research for The Ada Initiative. Valerie Aurora is the Executive Director of The Ada Initiative. This article is the second installment in our new USENIX Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) series.

“[I didn’t think] that I could be a competent teacher of technical topics, and that I deserved a place at various tech conferences” — Georgia Guthrie, director of The Hacktory, a makerspace in Philadelphia.

“Recently, we had a [software] event in New Delhi and there were only six women, of whom I was the only one who is a non-tech person. I had to take a session and I kept feeling it was a bad idea.” — Noopur Raval, Master of Philosophy student in Cinema Studies and Wikipedian.

If Georgia or Noopur’s thoughts sound familiar, you are probably good at what you do, and also one of the many victims of Impostor Syndrome [1].

Impostor Syndrome is the feeling that you're a fraud, that you're not skilled enough for career, and that you will be found out and exposed as an impostor. More people than you realize—including experts whom you know and respect—have Impostor Syndrome, but you don't hear about it for a simple reason: If you're afraid of being exposed as a fraud, the last thing you want to do is tell anyone about it.

What Causes Impostor Syndrome?

Where does Impostor Syndrome come from? In fields such as academia and technology, our work is often presented in public and open to criticism from everyone. What makes it worse is that usually we only see the finished products of other, more experienced people's work—the beautiful code, the award-winning novel, the revolutionary research paper—without seeing the years of study, practice, and work behind it. We compare ourselves with an illusory ideal of a person who is "naturally" good at their work.

That's the official story of Impostor Syndrome. But it's not the whole story. How often have you heard comments like these?

  • "Fake geek girl. I bet she's never even seen Star Wars."
  • "Are you here with your boyfriend?"
  • "Are there any women in computer science? Not counting use-interface designers, obviously."

For example, Intel developer Connie Berardi [2] reports, “Of the original seven [women in my first CS] class, I was the only one that graduated. Some were told by professors they were ‘not good enough’, that they should ‘quit while they were ahead’. The older engineering buildings at my school had once turned old closets into women’s restrooms despite a men’s room on every floor.”

Often Impostor Syndrome is a completely rational response to being called an impostor over and over. In fields in which women are not supposed to be good (and where sexism is rife), women are more likely to face Impostor Syndrome. The idea that most people, when their skills, authority, and legitimacy are regularly questioned, can answer with a "Not so, I’ll show you" is a myth. Rather, when our community tells us over and over that we're imposters, we start to believe it.

The result is that women, in addition to being undermined by others, internalize their criticism and undermine ourselves. We choose easier tasks that we believe are more suited to our skills; we apply for lower-level jobs than our confident peers; we don't speak at conferences; and we don't step up as role models, mentors, and teachers because we feel we have nothing to give to others. Even women who know about Impostor Syndrome frequently spend extra energy fighting with it when sharing their work with others.

How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Impostor Syndrome is a major reason women in computer science don't take on leadership roles, leave the field after a few years, or never enter the field in the first place. Bringing people together to help each other overcome Impostor Syndrome works. Doubting ourselves individually (for example, attributing luck to our career successes rather than taking credit for our effort and expertise) becomes more difficult when we're in a room full of people who also struggle with Impostor Syndrome feelings. Believing that we all "just got lucky" doesn't make sense.

Here’s what you can do to fight your own Impostor Syndrome. (In the next section, we will describe what communities can do.)

  1. Talk about the issue with people you trust: When you hear from others that Impostor Syndrome is a common problem, it becomes harder to believe your feelings of being a fraud are real.
  2. Ask your friends what they think of you: Usually, other people have a more realistic (higher) opinion of your work. Your friends can remind of you major accomplishments you have completely forgotten about. “Accept the fact that others recognize your skills not to please you but because they are real,” says Flore, Mozilla representative and WoMoz project [3] leader. “Don't blush. Just smile and say ‘Thank you!’”
  3. Go to an in-person Impostor Syndrome session at a conference, from your workplace training program, or your school: There's nothing like being in a room full of people you respect and discovering that 90% of them have Impostor Syndrome.
  4. Watch your words because they influence how you think: Noopur Raval [4], Program Officer at the Center for Internet & Society, advises, “Prepare responses beforehand. Ask yourself aloud who you are and what you do... If you know some of the typical questions that make you feel like an impostor, make you feel angry, prepare responses to them in your head.” Leslie Birch [5], maker and filmmaker, says, “Are you putting out any disclaimers like, ‘I'm not an expert on this, but’… It's easy to get into a pattern of pretending that you don't know something to seem polite or even apologetic, but in the end, it wastes the reader's time and even takes away from the knowledge you actually possess. Keep your uncertainties out of the writing and respect will follow.”
  5. Teach others about your field: You will gain confidence in your own knowledge and skill, and you will help others avoid some Impostor Syndrome shoals.
  6. Ask questions: Asking questions can be intimidating if you think you should know the answer, but getting answers eliminates the extended agony of uncertainty and fear of failure. “[A]sking questions and talking about mistakes sends the message to other people that it's OK for them to be imperfect too,” reports Britta Gustafson [6], community manager for Cydia.
  7. Build alliances: Reassure and build up your friends, who will reassure and build you up in return. (And if they don't, find new friends.)
  8. Own your accomplishments: Keep actively recording and reviewing what you have done, what you have built, and what successes you've had. “You can look back at [your accomplishments] later to help convince yourself that yes, you are making an impact just as much as anyone else,” says Amber Yust [7], Site Reliability Engineer, Google.
  9. Re-orient ourselves around your values and worth: When called upon to step up and show your work, reflect on our core values and how your work reflects them.

How to Help Others Overcome Imposter Syndrome

The flip side of coaching women on how to overcome Impostor Syndrome is building institutions that don't create Impostor Syndrome in the first place. Expecting to achieve gender equality entirely by asking women to change to fit the world isn't fair, nor is it likely to succeed. Our communities must be designed to prevent huge gaps between the actual skill required to participate or lead, and the apparent skill required.

Impostor syndrome thrives in communities with arbitrary, unnecessary standards, where harsh criticism is the norm, and where secrecy surrounds the actual process of getting work done. Here are some of the changes you can make in your community to make it harder for impostor syndrome to flourish:

  1. Simply encourage people: “My friends and colleagues have offered me a lot of encouragement. Having male friends in the tech world say ‘you should go to this’ or ‘you should do this’ has been very encouraging,” says Georgia Guthrie [7], a Philadelphia-based designer and maker.
  2. Discourage hostility and bickering: When people in your institution regularly have public, hostile, personal arguments, that's a natural breeding ground for Impostor Syndrome, and it discourages people who already have Impostor Syndrome.
  3. Eliminate hidden barriers to participation: Be explicit about welcoming new students and colleagues, and thoroughly document how someone can participate in projects and events in your research group and at your institution.
  4. As a leader, show your own uncertainties and demonstrate your own learning process: When people see leaders whom they respect struggling or admitting they didn't already know everything when they started, having realistic opinions of their own work becomes easier.
  5. Reward and encourage people in your team and department for mentoring newcomers: Officially enshrine mentoring as an important criterion in your career advancement process.
  6. Don't make it personal when someone's work isn't up to snuff: When enforcing necessary quality standards, don't make the issue about the person. They aren't wrong or stupid or a waste of space; they've simply done one piece of work that didn't meet your expectations.

Impostor Syndrome hurts women and hurts the industries that keep them out. But knowledge is power. Now you know the enemy, and you are on your way to victory.

References

  1. The Ada Initiative Imposter Syndrome training: http://adainitiative.org/what-we-do/impostor-syndrome-training/
  2. Connie Berardi: https://twitter.com/hackermnementh
  3. Women & Mozilla (WoMoz): http://www.womoz.org/
  4. Noopur Raval: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/noopur-raval/15/4a8/7a
  5. Leslie Birch: https://twitter.com/zengirl2
  6. Britta Gustafson: http://jeweledplatypus.org/
  7. Amber Yust: http://www.linkedin.com/in/amberyust
  8. Georgia Guthrie: http://www.georgiaguthrie.com/

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license.

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Thursday, November 7 (Technical session): Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) panel

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