Tag Archives: self-confidence

The Linkspam With Tribbles (4 December, 2012)

  • Reactions to women speakers: “Congratulations! You’ve managed to attract more women speakers to your conference. But, if you think your problems are over, you may be in for a surprise. If the experiences of Moose, the chair of Ohio LinuxFest 2012 are typical, instead of relaxing after your efforts, you may find yourself answering second-guessing from not-so-closet sexists.”
  • If Programming Language Articles Were People: “Imagine you’re a female developer and you read this article. What do you think reading it? Do you think “Ha ha. You’re right! Programming languages are totally like women”. Or do you think “Oh, right, thanks. I forgot for a second there that I’m not really one of the normal developers, I’m just a woman who happens to also write some code. Appreciate the reminder”.”
  • Gender Bias and the Sciences: Facing Reality: “It’s easy for science faculty members, convinced of their own high ethical standards, to assume that gender discrimination lies outside of their actions: earlier in the pipeline; in other fields; at other types of institutions. I found myself, as a former dean of natural sciences at a liberal arts college, reacting to these studies in just that way.”
  • Stacked: To be a woman and speak your mind: “But there is something particularly tricky in being a woman and expressing an opinion. It’s difficult to hold your ground, to push back against what other people tell you or suggest you should do or say or think or behave. It’s risky to be assertive and stand up for yourself. Because no matter what, your words and your actions are scrutinized on the basis of your being a woman. It’s not always obvious though. It’s incredibly subtle, and that’s why it’s so problematic. People who want to silence you don’t do so by wielding an ax. They do it by asking you to “keep quiet” so you don’t “cause trouble.” Code for, if you don’t say what’s on your mind, there won’t be any incident.”
  • Why It Sucks to Be a Woman in the Video Game Industry: “#1reasonwhy posters of both genders have done an admirable job of calling out how sexism makes it harder—and sometimes impossible—for women gamers to make games that they would want to play. A number of female engineers and artists noted that simply joining in on the hashtag and tweeting about the problem felt like a risky career move. But woman-repelling workplaces aren’t just bad for the game industry’s female employees; they are bad business, too. While the industry continues to cater to the supposed interests of teenage boys, those boys make up just 18 percent of the game-playing crowd—30 percent of gamers are adult women, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and they are the industry’s fastest-growing demographic.”
  • Solving the Pipeline Problem: “There’s a solution that addresses these issues: meritocratic selection. It’s not a game of quotas; it’s quite the opposite. Indeed, we picked the speakers we thought had the best stories and would be the most engaging presenters. We didn’t rule out any candidates for being white or men, and we didn’t favor women or people of color. Instead, we used a handful of principles to guide us: transparent process, blind selection, proactive outreach and enlisting help. Here’s how they played out.”

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

A breakout group at the Boston Python Workshop work at laptops around a table

– the anxiety of learning and how I am beating it

Beating learn-to-program anxiety with good gamification and courses

I have anxiety about learning technical skills. I wrote about this a little while back. But now I know more about how I learn, and, in bits and snatches, I am gaining proficiency and confidence. Here’s a summary of my journey over the last several months with learning more programming skills (in this case, mostly in Python), with links to some resources in case you’re like me.

I get anxious when learning skills that I think I should already know; I feel behind and guilty. Structure, little rewards, friendly sociability, and encouragement from other women help tremendously. Tedra Osell writes about this in the context of writer’s block, and FlyLady and Cheryl Mendelson’s Home Comforts speak to that problem in learning to keep a comfortable home; the people and resources I mention (CodeLesson, OpenHatch’s Boston Python Workshop for women and their friends, CodingBat, and the Python Challenge) provide many of the stimuli I need. Also, my anxiety spikes if I think I am supposed to compare my speed or quality of work with others (hence my post’s title), but cools down if I see evidence that someone else wants to patiently help me. These resources helped me learn without pushing my “argh everyone’s better than me” buttons.

So, first: CodeLesson. The vintage and handmade store Etsy ran a free four-week online course in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and the Etsy API. Hundreds of people signed up; I got on the waitlist, and eventually did three of the weeks in September and October. (I then had a big crunch week at work and didn’t finish, but I intend to finish that last week’s work anyway, to learn animation and pagination in jQuery.) It was exactly what I wanted — well-written tutorials and exercises to get me over the initial hump. I now know a little CSS, JavaScript, and jQuery, which is infinity percent more than I knew before. I had lots of fist-pump “Yay, I made it work!” moments. And the instructor’s praise of my work helped; I’m a social animal, and recognition and praise from instructors helps reassure me that I’m on the right track.

Thanks to Etsy for the free class. And I liked the CodeLesson interface and infrastructure enough that I may pay for additional CodeLesson classes, or get my organization to follow Etsy’s lead and offer classes through them to increase our users’ skills.

A couple months later, I had a chance to attend OpenHatch’s intro-to-Python workshop specifically meant for women and their friends. I’d read about these before, on GeekFeminism and elsewhere, and it sounded like it would fit how I learn as well as help me plan to hold similar events in my community. So, on a Friday in December, I took the bus from New York City to Boston.

An instructor looks at a student's laptop at the Boston Python Workshop

An instructor looks at a student's laptop at the Boston Python Workshop

It’s a good thing that the Friday night prep part was three hours and that I already knew a bunch of stuff that other people were new to (familiarity with the command line & the Python prompt, etc.) since I was an hour late! It was good to fix the syntax-y bits in my mind. The CodingBat exercises were great practice and I got a big triumphant fist-raised feeling when all those unit tests passed.

In between sessions, I chatted with some of the people who run the program. It sounds like each individual run of it costs about $300 for lunch for everyone and that’s practically it, since they use volunteers and the venue time is donated (and then like $10 total for pens/sticky nametags/laser-printed “here’s the workshop” signs/etc.). That’s practically out-of-pocket for a tech community, and they get grants. So it’s totally replicable. I’ve been reminded that it’s important to treat these kinds of workshops more like a community introduction than as standalone events; local user groups and communities should be the teachers, and email blasts and encouragement should integrate participants into their local hobbyist groups.

Saturday morning’s lecture included some review of stuff I knew, but it went fast enough that I was still learning most of the time — like, how to ask for the nth character in a string, or how for-loops quite work, some subtleties of scope, etc.

Then the project bits — the teachers and their presentations weren’t quite as polished as Jessica McKellar, who had led the earlier parts of the workshop. But I still learned a lot and got to make cool things happen using, say, the Twitter API, and that was very neat. As designed, the workshop led me through small, basic exercises first (the equivalent of finger exercises in piano), then showed off visually satisfying things we could do with Python and its ecosystem.

Aside from tiny minor delays, the workshop basically ran like a Swiss watch the whole time. I was impressed. It takes a lot of preparation, skill, and practice to make an event like that go so smoothly and teach so many people; congrats to the workshop volunteers! And I’m glad I went, learned and remembered Python, and got more confidence to attempt projects.  On a community management level, I’m also massively grateful that I’ve seen firsthand an example of how we can construct and maintain these parts of the pipeline, to help more girls and women get into STEM.

The workshop so excited me that I then did all the Python exercises on CodingBat, and started Python Challenge (I’m at step 4 or 5 right now). They’re complementary. They both gamify learning, and you don’t have to look at how other people are doing, and they both have somewhat granular ways of kindly telling you when you’ve done something slightly wrong. With CodingBat it’s the unit tests, which go from red to green when you cover another edge case. In Python Challenge, for example, at one point I went to a URL where I had transformed the filename from the previous URL per a transformation hinted at in the challenge. The URL had ended in .html, and after the decryption, it ended in the extension (making this up to avoid spoilers) “.ywnb”. At that address was a text file that the server signalled you should download. I downloaded and opened it and it just said, “have you ever heard of .ywnb files?!” or something like that, implying basically that I shouldn’t have transformed the file extension, just the filename. So, it didn’t just fail, it gave me a nicely furnished dead end, signalling kindly but playfully that I had done something understandably wrong.

Screenshot of two progress graphs from CodingBat

Progress graphs from CodingBat, showing my attempts to solve two problems; the green portions are unit tests that passed, and the red and pink portions are unit tests failing. The exercise "String-2 end_other" took me a while, but I got it.

There’s probably some game design term for this kind of compassionate railroading, but it makes me think of the caring side of the caring-to-combative community spectrum. And in both cases I got that feeling of being nurtured by someone who cared, even if that someone else is Nick Parlante (CodingBat’s author), years ago and a continent away.

Also, CodingBat is pretty clear about how you solve any given problem (declaring that this set of problems is about lists and only 1 layer of for-loops, or what have you), whereas in the Python Challenge you have a puzzle that you know you can solve with Python but that you can hit a bunch of different ways. If you want an experience with arguably more realistic exercises, the author of CodingBat also made the Google intro to Python, which includes exercises along the lines of “munge the semistructured data in this file with these guidelines.” I intend on doing that this year.

Python Challenge logo

Python Challenge is mysterious, yet friendly.

It was good to have my spouse Leonard nearby to help me when I was working on the Python Challenge, to (for example) help see that I had called a variable inconsistently, to notice that I couldn’t import a file as a module because I’d named it “1″ instead of something starting with a letter, to remind me how to learn of (“dir(filename)”) and then use (“filename.function”) the functions within it, to tell me about string.replace, and to tell me how to use the interactive prompt properly to investigate how you call a method on an object of whatever type. But I did nearly all the work myself. And as of today I feel a lot more comfortable using for-loops, knowing what data structures to use for a problem (I decided to use a dictionary datatype the other day! And it worked! So exciting!), getting stuff in and out of dictionaries, and generally thinking “I can learn this!” Data structures and algorithms had felt mystifying to me. Now data structures no longer do. I remember the moment in Python challenge when I thought, “I’ll use a dictionary!” and I was right! It’s great.

CodeLesson, CodingBat, the Python Challenge, Leonard available for occasional consultation, and the Boston workshop are the dance partners I needed.

I’ve just begun CodeAcademy and stalled (as with all the rest of my learning-to-code endeavors) due to lack of time, as my job is pretty absorbing right now. (Worth a skim: Scott Gray’s thoughts on CodeAcademy.) I also haven’t tried Philip Guo’s online Python tutor which may suit me better since I’m more interested in Python than JavaScript right now. But I thought it might help others to talk about my journey so far.

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

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.

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.

Re-post: Self-confidence tricks

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, we’re reposting some older writing for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on Apr 14, 2010.

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

How do you keep up your inner reserves of self-confidence?

It seems like a certain amount of “irrational” self-confidence is necessary for success in geeky fields. STEM work usually involves a lot of failure before you figure something out. While you’re failing repeatedly, you have to keep believing you can do it and you’re smart enough to figure it out. But the repeated failures, to me, always seem like evidence that I’m not smart enough. From a scientific perspective, I demand proof: what evidence is there I can do this? And there seems like a lot of evidence that I can’t.

It seems like guys are less likely to have this problem. They don’t attribute the failures to their own lack of ability so much — they attribute the failures to the difficulty of the problem, the equipment they’re using, the information they were given. (Or maybe I’m wrong and guys also feel this way. But they don’t show it as much.)

Anyway, my questions are: Have you experienced this? What do you do about it?

While I’m actually a bit of a poster child for high self confidence (you sort of have to be in my field), I’ve been teaching tutorials at the university for 5 years so I talk to a lot of students who aren’t feeling so hot about their own abilities: the first year of an undergraduate program is especially hard for a lot of folk.

So here’s some of the things I tell my students about how to survive in an environment that takes a lot of self confidence. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments!

Remember that you’re not alone

Lots and lots of very smart people have trouble with self-confidence. In fact, there are so many people who have this problem, that they have a couple of terms regarding the phenomenon:

  • Imposter syndrome refers to the fact that many people feel like they’re not good enough to be doing what they’re doing. They feel like they’re impostors who don’t belong and eventually someone will notice and kick them out of the field.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a very strange cognitive bias: People who are vaguely incompetent will over-rate their abilities, and those who are highly competent will under-rate theirs.

So remember that your insecurity may actually be a sign of intellectual maturity: you’ve learned enough to understand what you don’t know. And remember that some of those people who say they’re awesome may not be. Especially in first year computer science, where I teach, there’s a lot of blow-hard teenaged boys, and I remind people of that regularly.

Cultivate your shield of arrogance

I joke about it a lot, but I’m not entirely kidding when I suggest that the best way to get through certain things is to have a thick shield of arrogance. I’m not the only one who says this. The perl folk tell us that The Three Virtues of a Programmer are Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris. Think of it as a tongue-in-cheek recommendation: I don’t really think you should all become arrogant jerks, but it’s really handy if you can grin, wink, and say “of course I can do that, because I’m awesome” and then follow through.

The amount of arrogance shielding you need is a bit of a personal decision. You don’t want it so thick that you can’t take constructive criticism, but you want it thick enough that pointless insults roll off you. I publish academic papers in computer security, a field known for harsh practitioners, so I need enough arrogance to look at a terrible review and say, “Does this person even know what they’re talking about?” before I think, “OMG, they hated my work.” But then I need enough humility to admit that their mistaken impression might be fixable if I explained something more clearly.

Also, note how 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.

Find your cheerleading squad

Some days, things are going to get you down, and it’s really helpful to have someone who can cheer you up. People who believe in you and what you’re doing can help you through a lot of rough patches, including crises of self confidence in geeky fields. Constructive criticism can be great, but you also need the odd pep talk and some people who are willing to be really positive. And just like cheerleaders are often very talented athletes, you’re going to need some very talented people on your cheerleading team: people who can fairly judge your abilities and whose opinions you’ll actually believe when they say that you’re awesome. They don’t have to know everything about your geeky field, but they have to know enough about you to make some good judgments.

You may already have your cheerleaders among your existing friends, but one additional problem for geeky women is that they’re often surrounded by companions who think you’re hot and who have… other motives behind the compliments. This means cheerleading can quickly become icky. Not cool.

If this is a concern for you, consider looking for some extra cheerleading help from other communities. Women’s groups, especially, tend consider being supportive part of their charter (and often have rules against hitting on their members!) Some examples: Systers for women in technology, Linuxchix for women in linux and open source development… if you don’t know where to find such a community, ask on Geek Feminism and we’ll try to help you out, or maybe hook you up with other people who want to start such a community. Even if you don’t think you need access to such a community, you may be surprised by how much fun it is to have more people to interact with. And don’t think of it as a write-only relationship: hearing other people’s stories and getting to cheer them on is actually quite fun and rewarding.

Celebrate your accomplishments

Research has shown that women don’t promote themselves as much as they should. (If you want to learn about this, I highly recommend you read Women Don’t Ask!) This leaves us (and other shy folk) at a disadvantage because people around us may not realize and recognize how awesome we are. Even if you’re too shy to tell anyone but your cheerleading squad, give it a shot. And remember that some communities even explicitly encourage this, so you aren’t necessarily going to be out of place: Linuxchix, for example, encourages people to do “horn tootin’” posts where they celebrate neat things they’ve accomplished: a new job, a working system, a neat solution, achieving inbox zero, or even the first day your daughter sleeps through the night. Don’t feel you should only celebrate “big” milestones: if you do something that matters to you at all, allow yourself some time to brag.

You’ve got to remember to balance here: bad things happen, but if your cheerleading squad only hears from you when things are rough, it’s going to be harder for them to bring up examples later. So make sure they hear the good as well as the bad. I don’t know about you, but I find when I sit down and think about it there’s usually more good than bad.

Talking and writing about your accomplishments not only makes them more widely known, but also gives you practice expressing yourself… so not only are you advertising your awesomeness, you’re actually becoming more awesome in the process. How’s that for an extra ego-boost?

Don’t forget to be awesome

Just before I went in to do my proposal defence last week, my little sister sent me a text message that told me I had permission to be awesome. And when I asked her for advice on writing this post, she said I should give you all permission to be awesome too. It’s really hard to be down about yourself or your accomplishments when you’re too busy being awesome: that is, actually learning and doing the things that you want to do. It’s a bit circular: But if you can let go of self-confidence issues long enough to do cool stuff, then doing cool stuff will help you let go of self-confidence issues because you’ll have more examples of your awesomeness right there.

So go forth and be awesome!

Good girls don’t linkspam (3rd May, 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. 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.

Self-censorship, or picking your battles

A woman I know* in a geeky job is going back to work from holiday, and is thus re-dying her hair from pink to something in the ‘natural’ spectrum. There was a discussion about this in the forum where she announced her new dye job, with several people saying that if people have a problem with her hair colour, it’s their problem not hers, and she should be brightly coloured and proud as she chooses.

Sound familiar? Almost like “if someone’s a sexist, that’s their problem!”

My friend then went on to explain that of course it’s not only their problem. In her particular job she has short business interactions with people with a great deal of power over her professionally: representatives of external authorities approving her projects and similar things. She doesn’t feel able to be professionally successful while pushing their boundaries on her gender, on her age (young for the role) and on appropriate business dress and grooming all at the same time, and thus chooses to conform when it comes to the last.

Do you make similar compromises in your own life? Are there boundaries that you don’t have the energy to push on, or feel that you can only make so many challenges to the kyriarchy and the status quo at one time without all the challenges together meaning each individual one won’t be taken seriously? Are there times when as someone who is a geek and a feminist that you’ve let something else that you’d like to be slide, or times when other goals have got in the way of your expression as a geek or a feminist or both?

* This isn’t one of those times when I’m actually talking about myself in the guise of “a friend”. Although it does make me think that as a PhD student I should conduct hair colour experiments while I can.

Self-confidence tricks

This is an Ask a Geek Feminist question:

How do you keep up your inner reserves of self-confidence?

It seems like a certain amount of “irrational” self-confidence is necessary for success in geeky fields. STEM work usually involves a lot of failure before you figure something out. While you’re failing repeatedly, you have to keep believing you can do it and you’re smart enough to figure it out. But the repeated failures, to me, always seem like evidence that I’m not smart enough. From a scientific perspective, I demand proof: what evidence is there I can do this? And there seems like a lot of evidence that I can’t.

It seems like guys are less likely to have this problem. They don’t attribute the failures to their own lack of ability so much — they attribute the failures to the difficulty of the problem, the equipment they’re using, the information they were given. (Or maybe I’m wrong and guys also feel this way. But they don’t show it as much.)

Anyway, my questions are: Have you experienced this? What do you do about it?

While I’m actually a bit of a poster child for high self confidence (you sort of have to be in my field), I’ve been teaching tutorials at the university for 5 years so I talk to a lot of students who aren’t feeling so hot about their own abilities: the first year of an undergraduate program is especially hard for a lot of folk.

So here’s some of the things I tell my students about how to survive in an environment that takes a lot of self confidence. Other suggestions are welcome in the comments!

Remember that you’re not alone

Lots and lots of very smart people have trouble with self-confidence. In fact, there are so many people who have this problem, that they have a couple of terms regarding the phenomenon:

  • Imposter syndrome refers to the fact that many people feel like they’re not good enough to be doing what they’re doing. They feel like they’re impostors who don’t belong and eventually someone will notice and kick them out of the field.
  • Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a very strange cognitive bias: People who are vaguely incompetent will over-rate their abilities, and those who are highly competent will under-rate theirs.

So remember that your insecurity may actually be a sign of intellectual maturity: you’ve learned enough to understand what you don’t know. And remember that some of those people who say they’re awesome may not be. Especially in first year computer science, where I teach, there’s a lot of blow-hard teenaged boys, and I remind people of that regularly.

Cultivate your shield of arrogance

I joke about it a lot, but I’m not entirely kidding when I suggest that the best way to get through certain things is to have a thick shield of arrogance. I’m not the only one who says this. The perl folk tell us that The Three Virtues of a Programmer are Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris. Think of it as a tongue-in-cheek recommendation: I don’t really think you should all become arrogant jerks, but it’s really handy if you can grin, wink, and say “of course I can do that, because I’m awesome” and then follow through.

The amount of arrogance shielding you need is a bit of a personal decision. You don’t want it so thick that you can’t take constructive criticism, but you want it thick enough that pointless insults roll off you. I publish academic papers in computer security, a field known for harsh practitioners, so I need enough arrogance to look at a terrible review and say, “Does this person even know what they’re talking about?” before I think, “OMG, they hated my work.” But then I need enough humility to admit that their mistaken impression might be fixable if I explained something more clearly.

Also, note how 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.

Find your cheerleading squad

Some days, things are going to get you down, and it’s really helpful to have someone who can cheer you up. People who believe in you and what you’re doing can help you through a lot of rough patches, including crises of self confidence in geeky fields. Constructive criticism can be great, but you also need the odd pep talk and some people who are willing to be really positive. And just like cheerleaders are often very talented athletes, you’re going to need some very talented people on your cheerleading team: people who can fairly judge your abilities and whose opinions you’ll actually believe when they say that you’re awesome. They don’t have to know everything about your geeky field, but they have to know enough about you to make some good judgments.

You may already have your cheerleaders among your existing friends, but one additional problem for geeky women is that they’re often surrounded by companions who think you’re hot and who have… other motives behind the compliments. This means cheerleading can quickly become icky. Not cool.

If this is a concern for you, consider looking for some extra cheerleading help from other communities. Women’s groups, especially, tend consider being supportive part of their charter (and often have rules against hitting on their members!) Some examples: Systers for women in technology, Linuxchix for women in linux and open source development… if you don’t know where to find such a community, ask on Geek Feminism and we’ll try to help you out, or maybe hook you up with other people who want to start such a community. Even if you don’t think you need access to such a community, you may be surprised by how much fun it is to have more people to interact with. And don’t think of it as a write-only relationship: hearing other people’s stories and getting to cheer them on is actually quite fun and rewarding.

Celebrate your accomplishments

Research has shown that women don’t promote themselves as much as they should. (If you want to learn about this, I highly recommend you read Women Don’t Ask!) This leaves us (and other shy folk) at a disadvantage because people around us may not realize and recognize how awesome we are. Even if you’re too shy to tell anyone but your cheerleading squad, give it a shot. And remember that some communities even explicitly encourage this, so you aren’t necessarily going to be out of place: Linuxchix, for example, encourages people to do “horn tootin’” posts where they celebrate neat things they’ve accomplished: a new job, a working system, a neat solution, achieving inbox zero, or even the first day your daughter sleeps through the night. Don’t feel you should only celebrate “big” milestones: if you do something that matters to you at all, allow yourself some time to brag.

You’ve got to remember to balance here: bad things happen, but if your cheerleading squad only hears from you when things are rough, it’s going to be harder for them to bring up examples later. So make sure they hear the good as well as the bad. I don’t know about you, but I find when I sit down and think about it there’s usually more good than bad.

Talking and writing about your accomplishments not only makes them more widely known, but also gives you practice expressing yourself… so not only are you advertising your awesomeness, you’re actually becoming more awesome in the process. How’s that for an extra ego-boost?

Don’t forget to be awesome

Just before I went in to do my proposal defence last week, my little sister sent me a text message that told me I had permission to be awesome. And when I asked her for advice on writing this post, she said I should give you all permission to be awesome too. It’s really hard to be down about yourself or your accomplishments when you’re too busy being awesome: that is, actually learning and doing the things that you want to do. It’s a bit circular: But if you can let go of self-confidence issues long enough to do cool stuff, then doing cool stuff will help you let go of self-confidence issues because you’ll have more examples of your awesomeness right there.

So go forth and be awesome!