The Trouble With Imposters

Tech culture doles out imposter syndrome on one side, hubris on the other.

Originally published in Model View Culture, April 2015.

Credit: Flickr / Guillermo Viciano
Credit: Flickr / Guillermo Viciano

There’s something ironic about the fact that as the deadline for this piece approached, I opened the document and stared blankly at it. Frankly, opening it was progress—I’d been intimidated to come back and make the changes I needed to for days. A piece about imposter syndrome was circulating; it had popped up on my Twitter feed several times. I was afraid to read it. I convinced myself that it explained the points I was making here far more eloquently (and with better graphics!), and no one would need to read my version.

The piece is excellent. I finally read it, and you should read it too. Was it the definitive post on imposter syndrome, such that there never needed to be another one? No. Let alone that it would be impossible (it is a large topic), and that it wasn’t trying to be. I had just convinced myself—irrationally—that an article I hadn’t read meant I had nothing to add to this topic. I was experiencing imposter syndrome… about writing about imposter syndrome.

It’s Environmental

This is one manifestation of imposter syndrome—faced with an intimidating task, we fear that we can’t do it. But another, perhaps far more common, manifestation is: faced with a hostile and discriminatory environment, one we are unwelcome in, our perception of our skills, our chances, and our abilities to succeed—change and suffer.

What we call imposter syndrome often reflects the reality of an environment that tells marginalized groups that we shouldn’t be confident, that our skills aren’t enough, that we won’t succeed—and when we do, our accomplishments won’t even be attributed to us. Yet imposter syndrome is treated as a personal problem to be overcome, a distortion in processing rather than a realistic reflection of the hostility, discrimination, and stereotyping that pervades tech culture. The focus on imposter syndrome as a personal problem, as a series of “irrational” beliefs, pathologizes its victims and diverts attention from the problematic environment to the individual: this is classic victim blaming.

The symptoms of what we refer to as “imposter syndrome” were originally defined by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, in her seminal 1978 paper“The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. The research was inspired by her experiences in a highly competitive and selective graduate program, from which many of the 25 students enrolled wouldn’t graduate, and her later experiences as an educator and practitioner hearing these same fears from women [covered in Hot Seat].

Whilst imposter phenomenon is about the way that people—in the paper, women—perceive their achievements, it’s created and exacerbated by the environment and the way women are socialized:

“Given the lower expectancies women have for their own (and other women’s) performances, they have apparently internalized into a self-stereotype the societal sex-role stereotype that they are not considered competent (see Broverman, et al., 1972; Rosenkrantz, et al., 1968). Since success for women is contraindicated by societal expectations and their own internalized self-evaluations, it is not surprising that women in our sample need to find explanation for their accomplishments other than their own intelligence—such as fooling other people.”

Despite clear evidence of environmental factors (and the damaging effects of Stereotype Threat), not personal factors, we continue to hear constant refrains about how to overcome as individuals, and how to self-talk and confidence-boost our way into somehow not having it.

Meanwhile: Another depressing day of being ignored in meetings. The end of another long code review in which your every decision was questioned and had to be justified again and again. Another exhausting quarter “leaning in” only to be overlooked for promotion… again. When the HR process ends with a reminder of the enforced silence, and you walk past your harasser in the cafeteria because yes, he still works there—of course he does. A Latina engineer is mistaken for a cafeteria worker. A Black product manager debates whether they should call out another racist microaggression or just let it go. An Asian test engineer sighs as they have to answer the question “No, where are you really from?” one more time. A female interviewer is forced to explain, again, that no, she is not the recruiter.

And all the while, we ignore data on how minorities are perceived when they do “overcome” imposter’s syndrome, and when they are confident… and then punished for it.

The life of a minority in tech is one of a thousand tiny cuts while we’re lectured on “getting over” imposter syndrome. We politely call the environmental causes “unconscious bias,” pretending that it’s no one’s fault because everyone “means well,” like good intentions are magic. And so we whisper amongst ourselves, develop elaborate coping mechanisms, go to therapy, and avoid the guys that everyone whispers about but who are still there—because of course they are. At the end of the day, or late into the night because we’re “leaning in,” we go home and wonder if we can do it again tomorrow.

Is this evidence of imposter syndrome? Or is it an accurate assessment about how unwelcome we are, and how toxic, discriminatory, and abusive our environment really is?

It’s Not About Never Feeling Inadequate

The other aspect of the imposter syndrome dilemma is that it gets thrown about way more than it should be, used to mean many things beyond what it really does: a catch-all for people—especially women—who have any kind of doubt. But the reality is that technology has an even greater problem than under-confidence: over-confidence. In fact, it seems that the only failure not celebrated in Silicon Valley is the failure of confidence… and so imposter syndrome is treated as something to be avoided at all costs.

What about when, as Lara Hogan put so eloquently, we (or rather other people) call impostor syndrome what is really “having a totally reasonable amount of self-confidence”? Owning what you’re good at—and what you have still to work on? Really, as Christina Xu pointed out, isn’t the problem of over-confidence more prevalent? “Blowhard syndrome” rather than “imposter syndrome”?

If you’ve watched How I Met Your Mother, you’ll be familiar with the Barney Stinson attitude to life.

“You know what Marshall needs to do. He needs to stop being sad. When I get sad, I stop being sad, and be awesome instead. True story.”

On TV, this is comedy. In the tech industry, it’s:

“Sometimes I don’t feel prepared, and so I tell myself that it’s imposter syndrome, and I go do it anyway.”

The existence of imposter syndrome doesn’t mean that no one should ever feel inadequate:

  • Just became a manager and worry you aren’t good at it? Maybe it’s not imposter syndrome—maybe you need coaching.
  • Just switched to a new platform and worried you don’t know what you’re doing? Maybe it’s not imposter syndrome—maybe you need to read a book or take a class.
  • The company you’re running isn’t profitable because your costs are spiralling out of control? Maybe you need to pivot. (And maybe your investors should’ve done better due diligence).

The overconfidence of the industry manifests in widespread dysfunction and failure conditions that affect our employees and our products. The treatment of imposter syndrome as a horrible thing to avoid, a personal flaw, means that sometimes our realistic assessments are misclassified, ignoring their specific context. In fact, the low standards of management in the tech industry suggest that we need more feelings of inadequacy, or at least humility, when it comes to dealing with people. Products that ship without fundamental use cases accounted for (such as Apple Health and its lack of period tracking) suggest that we need more feelings of inadequacy when it comes to “product vision”. Long-delayed projects suggest that we should feel more inadequate about our capabilities when it comes to what we might achieve—or not—in a given time frame. Privacy issues and rampant online harassment suggest that we should feel deeply inadequate about how we’re protecting people’s personal information, and especially that of marginalized people.

In a world where men are judged on potential and women on their past achievements, where the industry is overwhelmingly dominated by privileged white men, the prevalence of over-confidence bordering on Dunning-Kruger is perhaps predictable. We’ve all seen the high-profile failures of cash-flush companies (Color, Google+, Joost) spun as success, of white men who “fail upward,” garnering continued support from VCs even after being forced out of their last company for inappropriate behavior. For white men in tech, the costs of failure are low because they “must have learned,” being so “high potential,” and because, of course, they match the pattern. For those whose failures are lauded and rewarded barely less than their genuine successes, irrational over-confidence starts to seem less bizarre and more like an inevitable outcome. Meanwhile, underrepresented groups are pushed off the glass cliff and told to work on their imposter syndrome.

(Ir)Rational

There are a number of harmful implications to these patterns: the pathologizing of underrepresented minorities, the displacement of responsibility for professional development, and the perpetuation of toxic environments. In the tech community, imposter syndrome is seen as a personal problem of feeling irrationally inadequate—yet continually telling women they are being irrational when they express concerns isn’t helpful. It ignores the culpability of the environment and the processes used to evaluate people within it.

Even if it were possible to trade imposter phenomenon for megalomania (which it isn’t), it would only move us further away from the humility and empathy the leadership and product failures of the tech industry tell us we desperately need. What room does the vast application of imposter syndrome leave for self-doubt or self-awareness? Assuming that it’s just irrational self-doubt denies potentially useful support or training. Most of all, chalking up myriad factors to such an umbrella term belies the need to explore where these concerns arise from and how they can be addressed or mitigated. Subtle or not-so-subtle undermining behavior by colleagues? Gendered feedback? Lack of support or mentorship?

And so tech culture doles out imposter syndrome on one side, hubris on the other. We pretend imposter syndrome is some kind of personal failing of marginalized groups, rather than an inevitability and a reflection of a broken and discriminatory tech culture. On the other side, we pretend that any feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt are something to be avoided at all cost, and that destructive overconfidence is the norm, even the ideal for tech workers—the white male ones, anyways.


Thanks to Ashley, Julia, Martin and Renee for reviewing and giving feedback.

3 thoughts on “The Trouble With Imposters

  1. Thank you for this insightful article! I appreciate that you described specific behaviors and situations. Your thoughtful comparisons of imposter syndrome, discriminatory environments, and overconfidence help me re-evaluate previous work environments.

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