Tag Archives: impostor syndrome

On competence, confidence, pernicious socialization, recursion, and tricking yourself

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

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”

RECURSION DINOSAUR rawwwrrraaaawr

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.

Letting down my entire gender

Years ago, probably around when I started my master’s degree, I had a chat with a friend about grad school, and she was telling me about how she’d made the decision not to continue on for her PhD. She had a lot of good reasons that just made a lot of sense for her life and her family and her goals, but she mentioned that although she was sure it was the right choice for her, sometimes she felt like she was letting down her entire gender because so few women continue on to do a PhD.

I’m reminded of this because that’s a theme that’s come up in a few comments on my recent post about impostor syndrome.

Quill says,

I’m torn because there’s still time, I could go back to studying computer science. I do think female representation in STEM is Important and I hate myself for taking the “easy” option and leaving a hostile environment (rather than continuing to try to fix it)

Restructure says,

I felt really bad for dropping these courses, because it felt like I was letting down my entire gender, and by dropping the course, the male students’ stereotypes about women would be confirmed.

I wish I could say I’m immune to this, but when you’re one in a small minority (be it due to gender, race, sexual orientation, disability/ability, etc.) it’s hard to deny that it’s a factor. Guilt about not being able to do everything strikes everyone. Parents, teachers, pastors… probably even politicians. But I think it’s worse for those of us who are minorities in some way. You might be the only person “like you” your colleagues will ever see. You want to be a paragon of people like you. You want them all to come away with you as a shining counterexample the next time they hear someone say “$minority can’t do $foo.” It’s not just that you need them to be impressed by you, but that you’re representing your entire minority. There’s a world of difference between competing on a sports team and representing your country in the olympics. You want to do your best not only for you, but for everyone like you.

And that’s just the pressure you’re putting on yourself. Then there’s the requests for you to represent $people-like-you. “We need women for our co-ed sports team” or “we need you to advise the board on how we can better meet the needs of disabled folk” or “I need some dating advice and you’re the only woman I know…” or “we need you to talk about your experiences as an immigrant.” And you’re suited to the job, and maybe you want to help even, but you’ve got 30 of these requests and you barely have enough time to do your own job let alone all these other things.

Saying no is extra hard when you’re trying to be that paragon super-$minority and improve the world for $minorities worldwide. What if being on that committee resulted in them hiring more $people-like-you? What if your conference talk changed someone’s opinion of $people-like-you? What if you inspired more $people-like-you to do what you love? Are you cutting off these possibilities by saying no?

And then there’s the spotlight. You are one of few $people-like-you, so people notice what you do or don’t do. People can be more resentful when you say no because they don’t know who else to turn to, and they can’t understand why you might choose to turn down such a great opportunity because they haven’t got 10 of those on their desks for that day alone. You try to gripe about it to people, and they’re utterly unsympathetic, “Oh, my life is so hard, everyone pays attention to me. wah wah.”

So you feel guilty. For yourself, for other people. You feel like changing the world rests in your hands, and you let the world down because you had to say no. You had to quit. You had to hide. You were capable of doing it — that was not in question — but you didn’t want to and you’re worried people will think that was a sign of weakness. You chose not to. And you’re feeling guilty.

I wish I had some magical advice to deal with the paragon guilt, but sadly I don’t. But I have a few non-magical things I’ve found help me:

  • Practice saying no, and learn to say “Let me check my schedule and get back to you on that…” so you have time to think and make the best choice you can in a sometimes very hard situtation.
  • Seek out more $people-like-you. Maybe they’d be happy to do some of the things you can’t (e.g. there are women who’d be happy to speak who just don’t get asked as often). Maybe you just need someone who can empathise with your problems. Maybe they’ll know a better way to help.
  • Seek out allies who aren’t as much like you. They can help with some of those requests too, and it can’t hurt for them to understand the problems you face.
  • Remember sometimes the demands on $people-like-you are just going to exceed the resources because there are few of you. That’s not your fault.
  • Try not to let guilt stop you from making choices that make sense for you. You’re probably going to want to make some sacrifices for $people-like-you, but you can’t help anyone if you’re burned out, so try to find a balance.
  • Remind yourself of all the awesome stuff you have been able to do. Save thank you letters. Contemplate indirect impacts you might have had. Think about things you did well that weren’t related to being a minority at all, but are awesomeness that people might now associate with your minority.

So… what makes you feel like you’re letting down your entire gender/race/sexual-orientation, etc? What are your coping strategies? I think this sort of guilt is felt by lots of people, just magnified by being a minority, so feel free to provide links to advice and coping strategies that are more general.

Laurian’s Living the Impostor Syndrome

One of the many awesome women I met at Grace Hopper posted this experience she had with a student:

So far in the grading it seems like everyone did their fair share of the work. Then I get to the last group I was going to grade for the night. It is two men and a woman. I read the men’s reports first where one of the men was a superstar, but they rated the other man and woman as doing great work; both men agree, the female student in the group did fantastic work.

Then, I get to her report. She gives herself the worst grade I’ve seen assigned to anyone else thus far. So I read through her explanation where she says that she doesn’t feel that she contributed as much, that she doesn’t have the same skill set, and so forth. I just about wanted to cry. Here was a young, energetic, stellar female programmer who when comparing herself against her male colleagues felt that she didn’t equate. I put my computer down, and decided to call it quits for the night while I ruminated on what I was going to do.

Laurian ended up sending the young woman an email about impostor syndrome and urging her to learn more, as well as letting her know that despite her bad self-evaluation, her peers actually thought she was doing a great job. You can read the letter here. I’m betting a lot of folk would love to have a teacher like Laurian who was willing to go out of her way to make sure you knew you were doing just fine, and that feeling insecure about it is something that happens to many competent people.

I’ve most definitely seen impostor syndrome among my students, and while I’ve never had to send an email like Laurian’s, I’ve often spent a lot of time congratulating students (loudly) during tutorials and encouraging them to show off their awesome work to others. Sometimes it’s amazing that the students who were too afraid to share at the beginning of the term are making all kinds of fun variations on their tutorials and bragging to their friends (and me!) by the end of the term. I’m lucky to teach such talented students.

So my question to you is two-fold:
(a) How have you combatted impostor syndrome in others?
(b) How have people helped you out with your own feelings of insecurity?

Linkspamming into a brick wall (9th November, 2010)

If you have links of interest, please share them in comments here, or if you’re a delicious user, tag them “geekfeminism” to bring them to our attention (twitter uses can use #geekfeminism). Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links in comments and on delicious.

Epistemology and impostor syndrome

Successful women often suffer from impostor syndrome. As wiredferret succinctly explains,

Imposter Syndrome is the pervasive feeling that whatever success or acclaim you might have, it’s all a cosmic accident, and other people really are much smarter and more successful than you.

Armchair psych follows, in which I massively mix descriptive and prescriptive:

The actor-observer bias and the related self-serving bias often cause a person to attribute her actions and their outcomes to certain kinds of causes, and attribute others’ actions, successes and failures to other kinds of causes. In other words, these bias lead me to believe that I caused my own successes and external events caused my failures, but others’ successes are due to luck and their failures are their own fault. Depressives’ biases run the other way; a clinically depressed person often believes that any good thing that happens to her is luck, she causes all her own failures, and her peers and role models and enemies get their deserved successes through their virtues. (Elliot Aronson’s book The Social Animal, chapter 4, “Social Cognition”)

It strikes me that Impostor Syndrome preys on the same epistemological problem as the biases I listed above. How do you know whether you belong, whether you deserve your success, whether your achievements even count as success?

Surprise!  You deserve to think of yourself as successful!

Surprise! You deserve to think of yourself as successful!

How would I know if another person, female or male, were succeeding or failing in my position? Would I judge them by number of emails sent per day, quality of relationships, apartment cleanliness, salary, credentials, orgasms per week, number of FLOSS commits?

Well, I could try to make a yardstick.  Consensus reality has an array of subjective and objective criteria for “is this person a success?” Proxies include money, influence, fame, respect from one’s community, and pride. I can use that data to try to fight the automatic negative thoughts. My bosses and colleagues praise my work unbidden. I’ve written articles I’m proud of. I can make strangers laugh at my jokes. I know so much about technology that my friends and acquaintances consistently ask me for tech advice. At one job I was earning more yearly than my dad ever did. I aimed to do foo and I did it.

“Does this person belong?” Belonging seems trickier, slippery and social. What’s the baseline? What’s a good metric for “does this group really accept and like me”? I can come up with plenty of falsifiable propositions to check whether they act as though they like me, perhaps even whether they are sending costly and hard-to-fake signals that they like me, but I can’t check their internal states.

And besides, it takes a lot of discipline and consciousness to address Impostor Syndrome with data. As long as I’m concentrating, I can believe I’m competent. But the data can be pretty handwavy.  And unless I use that data to change my permanent beliefs, sooner or later I’m subconsciously moving the goalposts on myself.  So at some point I have to just start acting as if I believe I’m good enough, stop believing — without proof! — that I’m a fraud, and allow my identity and beliefs to be fluid enough to catch up.

And we all have nonfalsifiable beliefs that undergird our behaviors. We all make assumptions to get through the day. Maybe you believe that men and women should have equal opportunities in the workplace, or that sunrises are beautiful, or that all humans should behave compassionately, or that God does, or does not, exist. Too many women refuse to add “I am a success” and “I deserve to be here” to their list of beliefs. If your excuse is that you can’t believe it because it’s not objectively provable, well, neither is “I am a failure” or “I don’t deserve this awesomeness” — let’s do some social construction to fit our blueprints for once.

What would I be like, if I were successful and deserved it? Well, I’ll try to act like that, then.

Other useful resources on Impostor Syndrome include Valerie Young’s Overcoming the Impostor Syndrome blog and Anna Fels’s great book Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.

Want more women in open source? Try paying them.

This is a remix of a post by the same name I made after running a BOF on attracting women to open source.

One of the most interesting suggestions I’ve heard on how to get more women into open source is pretty simple: Pay them.

As someone who loves doing this as a volunteer, I want to protest. Shouldn’t we all be doing this for the betterment of the world or something? But the more I think about it, the more I love this idea.

Think about the challenges women face getting involved with open source projects.

Feeling like they don’t belong? Paying someone is a pretty strong “we want you” signal, both to the woman herself and to others who might challenge her.

Not having enough time because of other life-work commitments? Making it your paid gig makes this the “work” part of that equation, rather than some part that just doesn’t quite fit.

Fewer opportunities for mentoring? Again, having the structure of a company behind you can make it a lot easier to ask for help within a known structure rather than trying to guess the social norms of an open source project.

There aren’t many women? Well, hiring a few is a great way to get the ball rolling, hopefully making it easier for future women. It’s an interesting way to handle the bootstrapping problem.

Paying women to do open source work isn’t going to solve all our problems, but it cuts through a lot of the Gordian knot that’s there. It just might be a useful tool for changing the status quo.

Ten tips for getting more women speakers

Allyson Kapin has a post over on Fast Company, entitled Where are the women in tech and social media? in which she talks about the dearth of women speakers at tech conferences. She offers a list of things conference organisers can do to get more women speakers:

  • Reach out to groups such as the Anita Borg Institute, She’s Geeky, Women Who Tech, National Women of Color Technology Conference, Women In Technology International, Women 2.0, and Girls In Tech and ask for suggestions of women speakers based on conference objectives and target audiences. Build a relationship with these organizations so that the communications pipeline is always open.

  • Look at your programming committee. Is it diverse enough? Two women out of 10 are not diverse. Also, consider having 1-2 panelists solely focus on recruiting diverse speakers.
  • Take on a 50/50 keynote challenge.
  • Edit panel acceptance notices to include a section on the importance of having panels filled with diverse panelists.
  • Follow more women in tech and social media on Twitter. For example, Women Who Tech recently compiled a list of 75+ women in tech’s twitter feeds. Be sure and also look at the Speakers Wiki and GeekSpeakPR.

Here are ten more tips:

  1. Have a diversity statement and code of conduct for your event that shows that you’re serious about welcoming women and other minorities. Make sure it is included (at least by reference) in your Call For Papers and other speaker communications.
  2. Track the diversity of your speakers. You can’t improve what you can’t measure. Count the number of women speakers from year to year, and if you’re proud of your improvement, tell people! If other aspects of diversity are important to you — first time speakers, speakers from other countries, cross-disciplinary speakers, speakers of colour — then count that too.
  3. Add a “Suggest a speaker” form to your website at the time of your CFP, and link it to your diversity statement. Ask people to suggest speakers you might not have thought of before. Follow up these suggestions with a personal email saying that the speaker had been personally recommended. You’re combatting Imposter syndrome here: knowing that at least one person out there believes in their knowledge and speaking ability will help potential speakers get over the hump.
  4. Avoid form letters. At least write a line or two of personalised, human communication at the top of emails you send to potential speakers, making them feel wanted. I’ve seen too many impersonal CFPs blasted to women’s mailing lists and ignored.
  5. If you’re a conference organiser or on a papers committee, go out of your way to attend sessions by minority speakers. If you’re in a rush, you can even just pop in for a few minutes. I saw one of the OSCON folks doing this to great effect the other week: he asked me, “Is $woman a good speaker?” She’d spoken at many previous conferences, but he had no idea, so I suggested he go see her in action. He went off and was back in 5 minutes. “She’s great,” he said. Her confidence and speaking ability had impressed him in no time flat. And yet he’d never known about it before.
  6. Let people know about any travel funding or scholarships which may be available for speakers at your conference. Women are less likely to be sent to conferences by their employers, more likely to be freelancing or working part time, or to have additional costs (eg. childcare) related to travel. Anything you can do to offset this will help improve diversity.
  7. When I’ve spoken to conference organisers and proposal committee members, what I hear time and time again is that technical interest is good, but having a great story to tell is better. Make sure your speakers know this! Emma Jane Hogbin, organiser of the HICKTech conference, had 50% women speakers and attendees, largely by doing this. This is a great tip for getting first-time speakers.
  8. In some fields and at some conferences, you’ll notice that women tend to speak about community management, documentation, and social tech rather than programming, hardware, sysadmin, and other more technical subjects. If those women submitted two proposals, one “hard” and one “soft”, the soft one may have been chosen to provide balance and texture to the conference procedings. However, the effect is to type-cast women speakers, and a vicious cycle may begin to occur. See if you can break the cycle by accepting more hard talks from women, or soft talks from men.
  9. Make sure that your conference’s extra-curricular activities are welcoming and safe for women. Here’s a tip: conference dinners with 90% or more men and free alcohol are not welcoming or safe. You don’t want to end up on a list of conference horror stories because of sexual harrassment, assault, or just plain sleaziness. If you can, offer taxi vouchers to help people get home from late night events.
  10. Pretend for a moment that your conference already has 50% women speakers and attendees. What would be different? Now do those things. Example: at one point OSCON had no women’s toilets on the conference floor, because of the vast gender gap in attendees. What message do you think that would send to potential women speakers? If you catch yourself doing anything like that, stop and reverse it immediately.

More information about women speakers at tech conferences is on the Geek Feminism Wiki.