Gender Diversity in Tech: Debunking Imposter Syndrome
This is the third and final part in a three-part series about Gender Diversity in Tech written collaboratively by engineers Ilmira Estil and Claire Lynch.
“What am I doing here?” was the first thought that came to mind when I started interning at Prolific Interactive. I. Was. Terrified. So much so, that a `git push` sounded like open heart surgery. Not comparable at all, I know. New experiences are scary because it’s an unexplored frontier. You don’t want to screw up a new gig. No one does.
I share this environment with smart people, many from prestigious backgrounds, and sometimes feel comparatively inferior with the knowledge I have. However, I also know that humans are prone to mistakes. My coworkers, even those veteran to the field, make mistakes too and hold themselves accountable for it. We’re imperfect humans trying to make perfect programs. More often than not, these anxieties of inadequacy are quite normal. Realizing this helped me over that initial hill of intimidation when entering the tech community completely new. These imposter feelings became less of an obstacle for me and more of a motivating factor from the support of my coworkers. Rather than criticizing the skillset I’ve yet to gain, it was inspiring to be challenged to grow.
What is it?
Imposter syndrome is characterized by strong self-doubt and the sense that you’re not really qualified for your job. Neither your achievements nor your capabilities measure up. You’re acting out the role, and fear that your colleagues will discover your inadequacies–to the extent that you believe others are drawing false conclusions when they recognize you as being skilled and an asset, or it’s only because you’re good at faking it. You aren’t able to internalize your successes, which are drowned out by the feeling that you don’t belong and ultimately aren’t cut out for your position. Have you felt this way at some point in your professional life? My guess is that you have.
Not a Syndrome
As a community, one of the first and most important things we can do to support engineers in moving past imposter syndrome is to stop referring to it that way. Words matter. The word “syndrome” connotes sickness and abnormality. It is unreasonable to call it such when we also recognize that feeling uncertain and insecure about our knowledge or capabilities is a practically pervasive experience among engineers. (Also, because imposter syndrome is not an official psychological diagnosis.) Regardless of our educational background, personal history, or level of experience, developers face uncharted territory all the time in our work. It’s the nature of the tech field, where things are constantly evolving and where we must challenge ourselves to learn new skills to keep up. Feeling like we don’t always measure up—either to the standards we set for ourselves or to the expectations our peers may have of us—is not a syndrome. It is part of the rigorous, ever-changing environment we’ve chosen as our professional home. It need not be “diagnosed.” We do, however, need to learn how to better balance these feelings with acknowledgment and celebration of our successes. This way, the moments when we feel like imposters won’t have the power to obstruct our professional progress or the realization of our full potential.
As I mentioned above, feeling like an imposter is not a unique experience. In my research, I learned that the term “imposter syndrome” originated from a Georgia State University study published in 1978. The authors focused their inquiry exclusively on high-achieving female university students, and concluded that top female performers are especially disposed to doubt their capabilities and intellect. But the insights we can glean from this study are limited, since it didn’t take other populations into account. My impression is that many of us who contend with imposter syndrome, and who talk about this issue with our colleagues, are not aware of this study. It’s important to question gender association with the imposter experience, particularly because subsequent research has suggested that as many as 70% of us, regardless of gender, will contend with impostorism at some point in our careers. Talk with your coworkers! Removing these barriers will allow us to see how prevalent the imposter phenomenon is, make it feel less scary, help us tackle our self-doubt, and empower us to seize upon our successes.
Not a Blocker
Despite the negativity that overshadows the “impostor phenomenon,” these feelings may be more of an innate human trait than we think. Research suggests that imposter experience may be a way in which we regulate our own stressors. As long as this self-deprecation doesn’t become a hindering habit, researchers found that these emotions can also be an impetus towards self-motivation. This rang especially true when they found a positive correlation between high levels of impostor feelings and a desire to “compete harder.” How can we encourage growth and motivation from this phenomenon rather than impeding progress?
Solutions at Prolific
Here at Prolific, there are many ways that we recognize each other for a job well done. During our all-hands Monday Morning Meeting, we give shout-outs to colleagues for their hard work and accomplishments. We utilize a platform called Impraise for our performance reviews, which also provides a mechanism for coworkers to send each other notes of praise and positive feedback on an ongoing basis. There is a new tradition at our quarterly company meeting, where employees receive awards for embodying and furthering each of our five Core Values. Within the engineering department, our code review process encourages collaboration in service of the shared goal to write high quality code. With the back and forth of comments before a PR is merged, it’s difficult for impostorism to win the day: We can’t “hide” from the feedback and assessment of our peers. Our skills are laid bare every single day! This can certainly be intimidating, but after taking the plunge and arriving on the other side of it, sharing code becomes easier and easier. We become better engineers, and the internal “imposter” dialogue is lessened. All of these examples foster an environment where, hopefully, imposter feelings can’t stand up against the positive reinforcement of a truly supportive work community.