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How I Overcame Imposter Syndrome as a Woman in STEM

women in stem
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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, myself 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 pickup line to catastrophically bad. (“I know you’ll realize that I’m the superior choice for a boyfriend. My IRC friend agrees.” True story.)

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?

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 makes 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 colored tissue box and a potted plant – but wait, nevermind, 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 everyday life, tech industry notwithstanding. 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 a 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 makes 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 the 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.

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.

And what about the handful of women that took part in breaking high-grade ciphers at Bletchley 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.

This article originally appeared on Toptal.

Last modified on January 24th, 2018

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