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Reframing Imposter Syndrome in the Tech Industry

Mon Feb 13 2023

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You’ve probably heard the term imposter syndrome before. It’s a popularly used term that is used to describe feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy associated with challenging tasks or environments.

The feeling of imposter syndrome is increasingly common in the tech industry, especially amongst women and minorities in tech. However, even successful professionals in the industry often feel this way. According to a survey conducted in 2018 with responses from over 10,000 tech professionals, more than half of (57.7%) said that they suffer from imposter syndrome.

There is a never-ending amount of articles, books, and workshops on imposter syndrome and ways to combat these feelings. In this article however, we’ll not only be discussing ways to respond to these feelings, but also reframing what feelings of imposter syndrome really are signalling and how to adjust your responses.

Who Came Up With Imposter Syndrome?

In a recent New Yorker article, the story of how this concept came to be is told. In fact, the original concept wasn’t actually called imposter syndrome at all, but the imposter phenomena, as it’s called in the title of the psychology research paper “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention,” by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.

The two women published the paper in 1978 after talking to over 150 successful women, ranging from students and faculty from different universities, to law, nursing, and social work professionals. Even women who had experienced professional success reported these feelings of inadequacy. In the paper, they wrote that the women in their study were more likely to have

“an internal experience of intellectual phoniness,”

and were living in perpetual fear that

“some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual imposters.”

Imposter Feelings in Computer Science

Imposter feelings are not unique to one field, that’s for sure, but it does seem to come up more often in the tech industry. Wanting to measure this, a study from the University of California set out to see if imposter syndrome really is more common in computer science than in other fields. Their study found support for this, stating that “imposter syndrome is more prevalent among CS students than students in other domains.

Reasons as to why this is more common in computer science haven’t been studied, but the following reasons may play a factor:

  • Imbalance of prior experience: different levels of accessibility to computer science classes makes some more experienced than others at younger ages.
  • Disempowering leadership: those in higher positions who believe not everyone is suited for computer science may convey those beliefs to their students, employees and those around them.
  • Competitive environments: those with more prior knowledge intentionally or unintentionally making those with less experience doubt their abilities.
  • The nature of computer science: the uncertainty of the “black box” and not fully understanding the inner workings of a computer or programming languages.
  • Societal representations of computer scientists: not identifying with preconceived notions of what computer scientists look like.

Women in Tech and Imposter Syndrome

In the same study from the University of California, data showed that female students had significantly higher levels of imposter feelings than male students. So what is going on, is it that women are more likely to doubt themselves?

It may have something to do with the fact that the tech industry has one of the biggest gaps in terms of diversity and inclusion. The chart below collected data from 500 tech companies worldwide in 2021. They found that women represented only 29% of the workforce, and ethnic minorities made up only 22%. (Source)

Maybe the fact that women in tech more often feel like an imposter has something to do with the fact that they are implicitly, if not explicitly, told that they don’t belong.

The Misdiagnosis of Imposter Syndrome

‘Imposter Syndrome’ has become so widely used in recent years that even well-known and successful women like former first lady Michelle Obama, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and business leader Sheryl Sandberg claim they’ve felt like an imposter before.

However, the popularity of the term has also been met with criticism. In 2021, two women in the Seattle tech industry, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, decided to publish a critique of the term they wouldn’t stop hearing, titled “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome”.

Tulshyan and Burey reframe the term completely, stating:

“imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of colour and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”

They emphasise that especially for women of colour, real systemic bias and racism serve to validate their feelings of self-doubt, while white men receive the opposite kind of validation which reduces their “imposter feelings”.

Ways to Reframe Imposter Syndrome

Although the realities of the tech industry can breed feelings of insecurity, there are some ways that individuals can respond to these feelings when they come up.

  1. Have a ‘Learning Opportunity' Mindset: when a task feels outside your current capabilities, see it as a learning opportunity.

    • If you didn’t have tasks that challenge you, you would be stagnant in your current position. In tech, things are constantly changing and you should always be learning and adapting to keep up!
    • It can be an opportunity to reach out to team members with more knowledge in that area and learn from them.
  2. Recognize Your Accomplishments: try to shift your mindset from looking at everything you have yet to accomplish, and look at everything you have accomplished so far.

  3. Know your Limits: some challenges might be way out of what you’re capable of- instead of suffering in silence, approaching your lead and explaining might be the best move.

    • Setting more appropriate goals and expectations with your lead might be necessary if you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed.
  4. Remember You’re Not Alone: feelings of self-doubt are completely normal and a common human experience, instead of fearing being “found out”, try being open about it!

    • Connect with your coworkers about how you’ve been feeling. Everyone was once a beginner too, and most likely has felt that way once before. They’ll be able to offer support and advice on how they overcame the difficulties they faced as a beginner.
  5. Recognize the External Forces of Inequality: don’t put all the blame on yourself and only seek ways to “fix your imposter syndrome”.

    • Remember that the systemic forces at play are often not so obvious, what might seem like a lack of confidence is actually a very normal response to being treated differently.
    • Try finding and connecting with people who’ve also been in your situation. A compassionate and understanding ear goes a long way.

Making Tech More Accessible

Individual efforts can only go so far in dealing with feelings of imposter syndrome. In order to make the tech industry more equitable, leaders need to create more diverse, inclusive, and supportive work cultures.

At Code Labs Academy, we are dedicated to help close that gap between where you are and where you think you should be, and make the tech industry a more inclusive and accessible space by providing accessible online programming classes. We provide a range of international financing options and flexible schedules, and we aim to make tech careers accessible to anyone who may want to pursue them.

Whether you want to learn Python or learn UX/UI Design, we offer fully remote and hybrid learning options of either full-time or part-time bootcamps. Book a call with us to see which bootcamp would be best for you and how it can help you break into tech.

We also host free workshops every month ranging from popular topics in tech to practical career advice. Sign up to get an idea of what learning with us might be like.

By Bernarda DeOliveira

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