How to Punch Imposter Syndrome in the Face

A Talk by Emma Grasmeder

Summarized by Natassja Linzau

Emma giving her speech on January 7, 2016

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong in the field of technology? That you don’t fit in, or that everyone around you is more qualified than you are? If so, you should know that you are not alone.

These self-defeating thoughts are known as “Impostor Syndrome,” which was the subject of a recent Women Who Code DC tech talk given by Emma Grasmeder on Thursday, January 7, 2016. Emma joined Women Who Code’s leadership team a year ago by forming our Python hacknight group. She most recently served as our Director of Education. Emma is moving to Berlin at the end of January and the following is a summary of her farewell speech.

Most high achieving women and many high achieving men experience impostor syndrome at various times in their lives. The syndrome manifests itself as a voice in your head that tells you you’re a fraud, discourages you from trying new things, and prevents you from taking risks that could help you advance in your technical career.

The most important thing to know about impostor syndrome is that it’s a lie. As Emma stated in her talk, “You DO belong here, you’re well qualified, you deserve to be here, and you deserve a good salary.”

The best way to fight impostor syndrome is to counter the negative phrases with positive ones, challenging your inner monologue and fighting back. Emma encouraged all of us to surround ourselves with people who can help by giving you a reality check and combating these thoughts from the outside until you are able to do it for yourself on the inside.

Research has shown that gender differences do play a role in the degree to which people are afflicted by impostor syndrome. Emma cited a study conducted in 2006 that examined the effect of people indicating their gender at the beginning of a test versus at the end of a test. Women performed much worse on a test when they had to declare their gender at the beginning of a test, whereas men performed more poorly when they indicated their gender at the end of a test (1).

There are also differences in how women and men attribute success and failure. In general, women tend to attribute their successes to luck and their failures to personal fault. Men, in contrast, tend to attribute their successes to self and their failures to bad luck (2).

Emma also quoted a statistic that is particularly striking: Women tend to only apply to jobs that they feel they are 100% qualified for, but men tend to apply for jobs even when they’re only 60% qualified for that job (3). Interestingly, lack of confidence is not the primary reason women don’t apply for more jobs. Instead, according to this article, it’s due in part to women’s socialization to “follow the rules,” along with misconceptions about the hiring process. When evaluating whether or not they should apply for a particular job, women tend to overestimate the importance of formal training and qualifications and underutilize advocacy and networking, which play a crucial role in hiring decisions.

What the culmination of these statistics tells us is that we’re up against not only ourselves, but also against other people who are not as critical of themselves. In order to compete, we need to “turn down the volume” on the negative voice and allow the positive voice more airtime. We also need to develop a larger network of advocates within our organizations and within the tech community as a whole.

Emma shared a courageous personal story about how she came out, quit her job, and found out that she had failed out of grad school in economics all in one day. Somehow, in the midst of all that, the only thing she could focus on was how badly she had failed. After awhile, she realized she was comparing herself to people who had a deep background and even several degrees in the subject when she had a completely different background. Comparing herself to others without being honest about the situation she was in was unfair to herself.

Then she stepped into the tech world and, in her words, “I started at square zero.” What made it even more difficult was that she was questioning her own credentials at a time when other people were also beginning to question her credentials. She spent a lot of time struggling, but eventually she was able to find her way through to become a successful data scientist and woman who codes. She realized through these experiences that the closest you can get to beating impostor syndrome is to be objective about your qualifications and experience.

As a part of her farewell talk, Emma shared her life lessons:

  1. Just do it! We need to integrate the part of ourselves that knows we’re qualified with the part that thinks we’re not. If you somehow can’t do that just yet, then trust the person who’s hiring you/interviewing you to make the decision about whether or not you’re qualified. Don’t eliminate yourself by not even applying.
  2. Don’t apologize. When people help you, say “thank you for helping me” instead of apologizing for taking their time. Be positive and don’t let those negative thoughts dictate everything you say or do. Your feelings are important and even small actions like acknowledging gratitude can create big waves that help in overcoming impostor syndrome.
  3. You need allies. We all need people around us who are experiencing the same thing we are, but who are “outside” and can help you make the decisions to do what you deserve to do.
  4. We’re all in the same boat. We all question ourselves at times in our lives — some of us do it more frequently, some less frequently. Parents are particularly susceptible to this questioning of their capabilities. But we have to believe that we’re “good enough” to do the job that needs to be done. Even so, it doesn’t really matter where you go or what you do, impostor syndrome will affect you.
  5. Don’t give in. Practice combating impostor syndrome and try to help others recognize it and combat it as well. It takes daily practice and occasional reminders from others but we can overcome it if we keep trying.

It’s not fair that some people have to battle this, yet others are somehow immune to it, but with awareness and strength in numbers, we will succeed in diminishing its influence on our lives and choose to do what we really love to do in tech.

Want to hear more? Watch the complete video of Emma’s talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vgoh8Kv8r7U

View the notes from Emma’s presentation: http://files.meetup.com/13508462/EmmaGrasmeder-Presentation.pdf

Sources:

  1. Steele, Jennifer R., and Nalini Ambady. “’Math Is Hard!’ The Effect of Gender Priming on Women’s Attitudes.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology July 2006 42.4 (2006): 428–36. “Math Is Hard!” The Effect of Gender Priming on Women’s Attitudes. Science Direct. Web. 26 Dec. 2015. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103105000788>.

2. Clance, Pauline R., and Suzanne A. Imes. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15.3 (1978): 241–47. Http://www.paulineroseclance.com. Georgia State University. Web. 26 Dec. 2015. <http://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf>.

3. Mohr, Tara Sophia. “Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified.” Harvard Business Review. Harvard Business Publishing, 25 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 Dec. 2015. <https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified>.