GHC Session #2: The Imposter Panel

06Nov09

Let me just say that this session was, hands down, the most important session at the conference. I think that having a Imposter-related discussion at one of the Women in CS brownbags would be really useful for everyone involved!

To start, let’s try to define what this Imposter Syndrome is. In essence, it’s the overwhelming feeling that you don’t belong where you are. You could feel like you’re in the position you’re in because someone else couldn’t make it. Or you could feel like you’re a fraud and that you’re just putting on an act and soon enough, someone will expose you for the fraud that you really are. It’s also the feeling that even though you got 94% on an exam or an assignment, everyone in the class must have done way better than you. Both men and women alike can suffer from the Imposter Syndrome, but it primarily affects the minorities in particular situations, i.e. women in sciences, math, engineering, and technology. Some of the symptoms that you are suffering from the Imposter Syndrome include poor self-confidence towards your school work or job capability or having feelings of being inadequate.

In June, someone told me that to succeed as a Computer Scientist or a Software Developer today, you don’t need to spend all your free time playing computer games or in the lab programming. I almost didn’t believe her! But it’s true. In a lot of cases, women see a balanced life as more important than men do. Don’t get me wrong, some men also think it’s important to have a balanced life, but a lot of them are happy to spend all of their time in front of a computer, programming, playing video games, or doing work. And as much as I may love what I do at work, I don’t necessarily want to spend every waking minute working!

There are several ways that you can treat your case of the Imposter Syndrome so that you can happily carry on with your life and not let it take over your mind completely. First of all, you need to the nagging voice telling you all these horrible falsehoods about your abilities and dragging your self-confidence through the floor. Second, you need to find ways to boost yourself and your confidence up. If you act confident outwardly, then you will be confident on the inside. And don’t worry, this is actually a lot easier than it sounds! It’s also really important to have a great support system, such as your friends and family (your parents!) and your significant other. If your significant other is not helping make your nagging voice go away, then you should probably have a talk with him!

You may be reading all these traits and symptoms I’m describing about the Imposter Syndrome and thinking “that’s not me at all!” But hold on a moment. A lot of us started out by feeling invincible, particularly in high school, and then developed our case of the syndrome in university. I don’t know about your high school, but mine was pretty small – there were only 2 people in my CS class in grade 12 and under 10 people in all of my other science classes in grade 12 (Chemistry, Physics, and Calculus), so I didn’t really encounter anyone who made it seem like I was out of place until I got to university. Being the only girl (or one of very few) is a much bigger deal when there are 90+ guys, not just one. People who don’t expect you to be as smart as the next person can wear away at your invincibility. Surprisingly enough, even in today’s modern society, some guys don’t expect women to be as smart as men.

Believe it or not, there are some benefits to having a case of the Imposter Syndrome! We tend to work harder to compensate for not feeling like we’re good enough and we aren’t “too” confident about what we’re doing, unlike some of our male counterparts ;) Do these small benefits really outweigh the cost of such a high level of insecurity though?

Remember – just because some guy acts insanely confident or arrogant doesn’t mean that he’s actually smarter than you! Guys like to brag about how easy assignments were and how little time it took them, but don’t listen to them. They’re just trying to make themselves look cool and it’s quite possible that it actually took them ages to complete the assignment and they refuse to admit it.

You also need to be able to recognize when people are stereotyping you. For example, in some cultures, women are expected to be getting (or already be) married around the time that we graduate from university. Don’t believe them if they try telling you that your education is going to prevent you from getting married! If a guy actually likes you for more than just your looks (which he should anyways if you want to pursue a relationship with him), then he will respect your intellect as well.

A great pep talk that you can give yourself if you start wondering if you really deserve the job that you have is to tell yourself that Your Company hired you because they think you’re smart and that they wouldn’t have hired you otherwise. A software company isn’t going to hire you just because you’re a woman – they’re going to hire you because they feel that you’re capable of producing the results that they want.

I have one more pep talk for you. If you feel like you don’t belong where you are, then you should calculate the probability that all of your successes were due to luck. You will realize pretty easily that this probability is extremely small. I’ve also been told that dealing with the Imposter Syndrome gets easier with age, though I can’t really let you know either way on that one yet. But I do think that as we get older, we don’t care about what people think about us quite so much and in turn, the Imposter Syndrome affects us less.

The Imposter Syndrome doesn’t just affect the psyche of technical women in regards to their technical skills and career path. The decrease in self-confidence is across the board and affects everything, including their relationships. It can cause low self-esteem and depression – and these two can create significant amounts of stress.

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