HackHERstory: Imposter Syndrome

You belong here and you can contribute great things, always remember that.

To celebrate the countdown to HackHERS 2017, we are proud to present HackHERstory, a four-part Medium series written by Rutgers computer science student and HackHERS organizer Diana Navarro, that explores her journey into tech and the lessons she has learned through her experiences. In this article, Diana talks about imposter syndrome — what it is, and how it affects the number of women that go into tech.

“I am constantly not good enough.” Those words linger in my subconscious. I get scared when I have to show what I know. I am terrified by programming interviews. I freeze when someone starts questioning me about the past technology I’ve used. These feelings come from my fear of being exposed. I just don’t want them to find out. I don’t want the world to find out that I have no idea what I’m doing.

When people see my resume they think very highly of my coding skills. This is usually the case because I have some big names on there plus some strong verbs and adjectives. But in all honesty I know just as much as the average computer science student and this is what contributes to my lack of confidence. I feel like I don’t deserve my resume. In almost every interview I’ve had I’ve felt like a complete fraud. And I tell myself (subconsciously) that I do not deserve the opportunities I’ve been given. I feel as though I am lucky. It was all luck.

I’ve dealt with this feeling for a long time until I one day I came across an article that explained exactly what these feelings were. This feeling is formally known as imposter syndrome and it’s something many deal with (especially women in technology). In 1978, two American psychologists studied high-achieving women and observed this feeling of “phoniness and belief that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement”( The study done by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes found four consistent behaviors in high-achieving women: Diligence, sense of phoniness, charm, and avoiding displays of confidence.

Women with imposter syndrome tend to display diligence in their work, and though diligence is commonly conceived as good, in this case with imposter syndrome, it is not. This diligence is motivated by “fear and anxiety of being discovered as a fraud.” The women were praised for their hard work which lead to a temporary feeling of success. The issue with this feeling of success was that it was very short-lived. Because the women are praised for the work they’ve done while motivated by their anxiety, it reinforces the feeling anxiety. The feeling then turns into “If I believe I can succeed, I will actually fail.” This cycle turns dangerous by accumulated feeling of anxiety and even sleep deprivation. Something that I’ve had first-hand experience with.

The sense of phoniness goes much further than simply believing one is a fraud. If success comes to the woman, she tends to believe that it was due to some fluke and that she’s still incompetent. Also when success comes to women, they may feel it was due to their “use of charm” to win the approval of one’s superiors and peers since many women use their intuition and sociable aspects of their personality in their careers. This leads to even bigger feeling of incompetence.

“Someone’s gonna know I’m dumb,” “That person will realize I don’t know anything.” these thoughts pop up occasionally for me in times of pressure. You would think that this would make me work harder? That “Imposter Syndrome” would motivate me to stop feeling like this? Well here’s the thing with Imposter Syndrome: I can achieve as much success as I set out to but still always feel incompetent. I’ve done three technical internships and I can still sometimes doubt my abilities when it comes to reaching my goals. What imposter syndrome really does is restrain you from doing your best work. It hinders you from believing in yourself. Although the “diligence” aspect may seem like a great thing, success driven by fear and anxiety is a sure-fire way to burn out.

Imposter Syndrome is prevalent among high-achieving women. Women who believe that their success is only because of “luck,” or because of their “charm.” They discredit their success. But as women in technology, it’s time we stop Imposter Syndrome in it’s tracks.

  1. Ask Questions. I do not care how dumb you think your question is. It is always more efficient to ask for help rather than telling yourself “I’ll figure it out later.”
  2. Explain what you know. Not only does this solidify what you know but it gives you more confidence in yourself! You also get to teach other people things, which is always super beneficial.
  3. OWN YOUR ACCOMPLISHMENTS. List accomplishments you’re proud of somewhere. Anywhere. Make a note on your phone, github repo, write it down on a post it.
  4. When you’re telling people things you’ve done, DO NOT DEGRADE THEM. I always found myself explaining my work as “Oh I just did _____. It’s no big deal” “I’m not a real coder, I just know ______.” You are smart. And if you did something, YOU DID IT. You didn’t “JUST” do it. YOU DID IT.
  5. Accept compliments. One time I was told my intern project was really good, I responded as “It’s okay, not really impressive.” That’s a huge NO.

You have accomplishments. You’ve done great things. You belong in the tech community! By taking steps to combat this feeling of not being good enough, I’ve felt more confident in my endeavors. By owning up to the work I’ve done, I’ve gotten better at explaining my projects. By accepting compliments and recognizing my skills and talents (not boasting/or bragging), I’ve motivated myself to accomplish even more! I will admit that Imposter Syndrome is definitely not something you get rid of overnight and it’s not something that goes away completely. I’ve had moments where I am surrounded with people exponentially smarter than me, and I begin to question if I really belong. Or if I’m just some fraud who got lucky? Then I shake it off, recognize Imposter Syndrome, and remember that I belong here (wherever I am). You belong here and you can contribute great things, always remember that.

Diana Kris Navarro is a junior at Rutgers University studying computer science, as well as an organizer for HackHERS 2017. She was one of the founding sisters of Girls Who Code, and has previously interned at Adobe, Qualcomm, and Gilt Group.