Three women in Dalek costumes attacking an inflatable Tardis

Re-post: On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

During the December/January slowdown, Geek Feminism is re-publishing some of our highlights from earlier in the year. This post originally appeared on January 20, 2011.

The other night I went to a hacking meetup for the first time in months. It’s usually an informal Python learnfest, and as I’m refreshing my Python basics, I went with the assumption that I’d be the least technically skilled person there. Like, of course, right?

The hacking meetup that night was, as it turns out, an installfest, so I ended up generally poking around at the software being demonstrated, and conversing with strangers. One in particular caught my attention with a fairly ill-formed question: what meetups should he visit to learn how to make websites?

Over the next hour, as I answered his questions, it became clear that he just didn’t know much, compared to me, about software engineering, or about the wider world of technology or the web. He’s in the second year of a computer information systems bachelor’s degree, and knows his way around a little Java (of which I am wholly illiterate). He didn’t know about the LAMP stack, or about Drupal or Rails or Django (or why one might choose PHP versus Ruby versus Python versus Java versus pick-your-web-friendly-language). He didn’t know that these tools exist, or why one would use a framework or pre-existing CMS rather than coding “everything” oneself. He has never heard of bug trackers, or source control, or diff. He said he did not know what a wiki was (I scarcely believed this, and told him that Wikipedia is a wiki).

As a side note: I gathered that his entire career trajectory and curriculum comes not even from conventional wisdom, but from “I once heard someone say.” Examples: “Why are you doing CIS instead of CS?” “Someone told me that CS majors get outsourced.” Or, more boggling: “Someone told me Python is useless.”

From one perspective, this guy has more technical merit than I do. He has taken an algorithms class. He can probably do a job interview coding question better than I can (reverse the characters in this string, etc.). But I have a fair amount of wisdom he lacks, full stop.

Then there was the guy who was interviewing me to work at his startup. As we walked, he offhandedly mentioned his current project at his day job: a PHP web app needed to be able to turn user markup into HTML. “And you’ve already checked whether MediaWiki has something you can grab, right?” I asked. He stopped in his tracks. No, he had not thought of that.

I need to stop assuming that everyone else knows more about the tech than I do.

We’ve talked a fair amount here at Geek Feminism about impostor syndrome and sexism (my past post). I’m just going to start with a few postulates:

  • In sexist societies, women get especially socialized to think we’re not as intellectually capable as we are, and to act self-deprecating about our abilities
  • In technical spaces where women are the minority, sexists dismiss our successes and concentrate on our missteps

Regarding the latter, I recently reread Abi Sutherland’s “Permission to Suck”, which included a moment of a familiar self-flagellation:

…every achievement is just a mitigation of the disservice I’m doing womankind.

It’s as though my goalposts came on casters to make them easier to move

But of course that is an error in judgment. Our sense of our own merit gets calibrated by feedback from the outside world, but sexism and impostor syndrome get in the way of that calibration. All the tentacles of this issue — the prejudice, the tokenization, the distorted self-perception, the discounting of one’s achievements and comparative lionization of others’ — bother me because they mess with proper judgment.

On an emotional level, I especially hate that anything is interfering with my data-collection and judgment. I am the kind of person who delayed drinking alcohol and took notes the first time she drank, to record any degradation in perceptions and prudence. I delayed getting a credit card till I’d supported myself for more than a year, partially to ensure that I had the correct attitude to judging purchases & debt. And here is this thing, clogging and fogging my mind, which I know is a lie, but which does not go away even when I speak its true name and snap three times.

Recursion Dinosaur


And a poisonous effect of the socialization is that it turns women’s conversations about the problem into yet another self-deprecation exercise.

“I hate myself for hating myself so much”

“oh god you’re awesome, I have worse impostor syndrome than you”

“No way, your self-confidence is admirable”

“I’m meta-shit”


So I seek lessons and tactics on how to become a less irritating person to my friends, and a more useful and capable person going forward. Some assorted thoughts and ideas:

Five ways you can feel as competent as you really are

  1. Everything in Terri’s earlier advice, especially a shield of arrogance.

    I’m not saying you need a thick skin. That’s maybe true, but it won’t help your confidence nearly as much as the ability to say, “screw you; I’m awesome.” Shield of arrogance it is.

    If you are worried about being confidently wrong sometimes, note that a small increase in confident wrong assertions is a small price to pay for a big increase in capability, correct assertions, momentum, and achievement.

  2. Know that sometimes thoughts come from feelings, not the other way around. The “I suck” feeling does not necessarily have a basis, just as good weather and ephemeral physiology can put you on top of the world. Instead of looking for reasons that you feel mildly down or incapable, consider disregarding them, acting, and seeing if your feelings dissipate.
  3. If you feel compelled to go from success to success, you may not be risking enough. As these entrepreneurs do, try assuming that you will fail the first time you try something.
  4. Every endeavor that anyone has ever done is therefore in some sense No Big Deal, that is, doable. Some people make the hard look easy, but experience and effort make for far greater variation than does innate ability — or, at least, isn’t it more useful to assume so? Watch other people succeed, and watch other people fail. Mere life experience helped me out here, but so did Project Runway, where I saw good people trying and failing every single week. And so did seeing these guys, at the meetup, at the job interview, being dumber than me. I just had to keep my eyes open and it happened, because I am smarter than the average bear.
  5. Notice the things you know. A friend of mine recently mentioned to me that she worries that people perceive her as incompetent if she asks more than two questions about a hard problem via her company’s internal IRC channel. I asked her to compare how many questions she asks and answers on IRC each day. She hadn’t even been considering that ratio, because she’d unthinkingly assumed that what she knew must be basic, and blabbing about the stuff she already knows is easy and natural and unremarkable. But upon consideration, she’s a good peer in that informational ecology, seeding more than she leeches.

This is all corollary to my earlier injunction to make irrationality work for you. We are all monkeys, seizing on narratives and any status signals we can find. Don’t keep the default sexist irrational assumptions get in the way of your confidence-competence virtuous circle. Make your own recursion dinosaur of win.

2 thoughts on “Re-post: On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

  1. Kimadactyl

    Great article. As a genderqueer person who was socialised as a boy, I’m used to being assertive, even though I’ve always thought “everyone will think I’m an idiot if i ask X”. I ask anyway, feel like an idiot, then after a few times people saying to me “hey, thanks for asking that, everyone was thinking the same”, I lost the shame and now almost deliberately ask “dumb” questions that seem really basic to me. As a result I’ve lost my fear doing it and it’s now almost known as my “thing”. Stuff like “that’s all very well but how is this useful?” I seem to say a lot. Also asking for what individual acronyms etc mean.

    In short – totally agree, and can back this up first hand.

  2. Jessica Marie

    Thank you!
    Thank you so much for posting this and saying this. Even some of the most confident women fall into this trap. And who could blame them when everything we are fed tells us that women are just less capable intellectually as men and do not advance as far in their careers as men. It may not be that clear in our minds but it is there.
    Its why we don’t speak up when we feel we deserve a raise, why we constantly tell ourselves we need to be better or just outright assume we are going to be terrible at something.

    As a female artist this is something I struggle with all of the time. Male artists are more publicized, they get more $ per piece: and the real question is why arn’t women asking more for their work? I wasn’t doing it because I thought the work wasnt worth it. But when I really looked at it, it totally is.

    So again, thank you for saying it.

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