The Real Deal: Impostor Syndrome As Women in Workplace in STEM

Women in STEM can at times experience "impostor sydnrome<" but there are ways to handle it. 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 (colorful 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).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.[bctt tweet=“Really? Was it true? Did my gender alone give me an advantage?” username=“takeleadwomen”]

From Freshman To Bachelors Degree, 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. 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.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.”He 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.”

Impostor Syndrome: Little Sister Or Nag?

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 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.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.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. 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?Overall, I was super lucky to have my Women-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.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.