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Tech blog

Women in tech: Tackling imposter syndrome

6-minute read

Kayli Brownstein

21 December 2020

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At the beginning of December 2020, myself and two other Simply Business employees attended the Women in Tech Festival Global conference. While the conference had a lot of truly great talks and panels, one that particularly resonated with me was a presentation on imposter syndrome given by Lisa Emery, CIO at the Royal Marsden.

Women in Tech Festival Global

Imposter syndrome was not an unfamiliar topic but I had never really put too much thought into how to manage or tackle it. After the presentation, I did a little more research into the ways that imposter syndrome can affect women in tech and reflected on my own experience.

I come from a non-traditional background for tech. I majored in English and French in college, and then made the transition from project management to software engineering by way of a Boston-based web development bootcamp called Launch Academy. I quit my steady-paying job and took the chance on a bootcamp because I wanted a mentally stimulating career that would challenge me by allowing me to work on creative solutions to complex problems. It was the best investment in myself I’ve ever made, and I am so glad I made that choice.

Like many of my peers, I often experience imposter syndrome. Since landing a job post-bootcamp, I’ve actively made contributions in my developer roles, managed and executed smaller and larger-scale software projects, and experienced successes during my time as a software engineer. Despite this, I often feel as though I’m a “non-technical” person, perhaps because of my humanities degree, and sometimes wonder if maybe another field or position would be a better fit for me. But then I start working on some code, get sucked into problem-solving, and remember the reasons I wanted to become a developer in the first place.

I thought that if what I learned from the presentation and my reflections after was helpful for me, it might be helpful for others too. So I wanted to share some information about imposter syndrome: what it is, how to spot it, how it can affect the day-to-day, and some tips on managing and tackling it.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the consistent (unfounded) feeling that you’re going to be exposed as a fraud. Someone experiencing imposter syndrome often doubts their talent, skills, or accomplishments and feels as though they haven't earned their successes. It’s a psychological pattern first coined in 1978 as a result of a psychological study of 150 highly successful women [1].

It is all too easy for women in tech to experience imposter syndrome. Although men can also be affected by it and I don't want to brush aside or devalue that experience, my focus in this post is how it affects women. While it is recognized that men can also suffer from imposter syndrome, it is arguably more prevalent among women (a minority group) in the tech industry. Women make up only about 26% of the computing workforce [2]. Working in a predominantly male field can foster feelings of incompetence and out-of-placeness, which in turn can manifest feelings of being an imposter. When we achieve things that aren't necessarily aligned with the narrative we’re familiar with, it can feel like we don’t deserve our successes or that we haven’t earned them with our own efforts.

How do I know if I’m affected by imposter syndrome?

Someone experiencing imposter syndrome may identify with some or all of the following:

  • You’re (somewhat of) a perfectionist - mess-ups feel (disproportionately) massive
  • You need to know everything about everything to lead your project or be successful
  • You don’t apply for a role unless you feel you can tick every single box
  • You don’t speak up in meetings for fear of feeling or looking stupid
  • You’ve always been good at things you apply yourself to, so why is this so hard?
  • Asking for help feels like exposing weakness
  • You feel under pressure to do or have it all

How can imposter syndrome affect me day-to-day?

Imposter syndrome can affect your day-to-day work and interactions, which can have personal and professional consequences. The syndrome can manifest in the following ways:

  • A tendency to micromanage, having a fear of delegation
  • Needing to work harder because you didn’t “earn” your title
  • Devaluing “downtime”, being motivated by work
  • Hesitating to ask for help
  • Being overly deferential (using phrases like “Of course I’m not an expert in this…”, “I’m not technical”)
  • Self-deprecating language (using words like “feisty” and “bossy” when referring to yourself)

How can I manage and tackle imposter syndrome?

It’s important to reflect on your accomplishments, your contributions, and your strengths regularly. A key element of this is to also consider the personal brand you’re creating for yourself and how you’re presenting yourself to others through your language and interactions. Here are some tactics you may find helpful for managing and tackling imposter syndrome.

Be self-aware

  • Learn to recognize it. Realize when you are experiencing imposter syndrome so you can work on tackling it. The lists above dealing with how it can manifest may be helpful for recognizing it.
  • Honest reflection. Value constructive criticism and recognize that if you are trying to do it all, you might be holding your team back.
  • Be open to changing and learning. Accept positive and critical feedback and come up with a plan to tackle it.
  • Brush up your resume regularly. This helps you focus on your individual and team successes.

Present yourself confidently

  • Think about language and influence. The language you use to speak about yourself will affect how other people view you.
  • Reflect regularly (on the good and the bad) with your team.
  • Role-play scenarios with trusted friends and colleagues. Talk about ways that you might be able to approach certain situations differently.
  • Don't sacrifice authenticity to present a different version of yourself. Presenting a different version of yourself holds you back and can take away from where your strengths lie.

Engage with your community

  • Create a space to talk about imposter syndrome. Surrounding yourself with allies and supporters will help you realize that many people are in the same boat. This space can be Slack channels, scheduled video chats, etc.
  • Support your colleagues. We have a responsibility to help our colleagues advance. It’s important to share knowledge, be empathetic, and bolster people by sharing and acknowledging each other’s successes. Progressing in our careers is not a zero-sum game. Cheer each other on!
  • Get into mentoring.
    • Become a mentor: As a mentor, you can reinforce and think through some of the challenges while helping other people.
    • Become a mentee: As a mentee, talking honestly and openly will allow you to benefit from someone’s wisdom and experience.

Any significant changes in your professional career, such as switching jobs or taking on larger projects, naturally come with a level of uncertainty. This uncertainty can become a trigger for self-doubt.

I resonated with the presentation on imposter syndrome because it’s something that I’ve felt a bit more strongly this past year after starting my new job at Simply Business in March 2020. While making the switch to a new job that uses different system architecture and technologies and comes with a whole new suite of domain knowledge was very exciting, it was also very intimidating. Some of the tech I had never used at all, and some I had learned before but hadn’t been actively using, so my knowledge was out-of-date. As a newbie on the tech team, it took a while to get comfortable with the new technologies, the new codebases, and the new way of doing things. There were times when I could feel doubt creeping in as I took on challenges that were unfamiliar to me. This self-doubt gradually lessened as I experienced minor victories and became more familiar with my new role. Looking back, I could have benefited from the information in the presentation and used it to understand how imposter syndrome was affecting my day-to-day work and interactions.

If you can relate to feeling like an imposter, then I hope that this information helps you recognize when you are affected by imposter syndrome and assists you in developing a plan to tackle it. If you can’t really relate, then I hope this information helps you to become more aware of what your colleagues may be experiencing. Being empathetic and mindful of those around us can go a long way in fostering a positive and nurturing work environment.

I personally don’t think that imposter syndrome is something that you ever really overcome, but rather something that you learn to manage. As we progress in our careers, we’re going to be in situations we’ve never experienced before, with new or renewed doubts about whether or not we “belong” or deserve our positions. But there’s comfort in knowing that you are not alone when you feel like an imposter, and luckily, there is plenty of information on imposter syndrome available. Keep on looking for tactics that work for you, and remember to celebrate your successes, however small they may seem!

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We create this content for general information purposes and it should not be taken as advice. Always take professional advice. Read our full disclaimer

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