Career women in computer science

That Time I Was an Imposter

Credit: Pixabay / Alexas_Fotos

I was reminded, recently, how much I have come to hate the phrase “imposter syndrome”. Not because I don’t think it’s a helpful concept (I do). But because it’s overused, and used harmfully. My post The Trouble with Imposters resurfaced, and I was in a BBC program about it. Then Rachel Smith wrote an awesome post, I haven’t experienced imposter syndrome, and maybe you haven’t either.

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Image shows a TODO list titled “Second Shift”. List items: prep K12 talk, blog on woman at the company, tweet a fun selfie with a hashtag. The last item is “FIX IMPOSTER SYNDROME” (all caps).

Corporate feminists and big companies love to talk about imposter syndrome because then they can shove it into the second shift work that women and minorities are expected to do.

It’s just an expected hazard, ladies, and don’t worry just fix thyself. Once you’ve made sure that we’re making the appropriate effort on the pipeline, of course – we all know that’s the biggest problem. Sometime between the talk you’re giving to those school kids and by the way we thought it would be cool if you wrote something for the company blog talking about how great it is to work here whilst female. PR will help you.

Your male teammate never mentions the blog post, but he does send back that code review you’ve been waiting two days for. He wants you to do it completely differently, and you sigh because you have three other branches on top of that, now. You stay late proving that his way won’t, in fact, work. What a waste of time. Better not include that in the talk.

You feel discouraged, and try to talk to your manager about it. But he’s just been to the company mandated diversity training. He tells you how much the work you’re doing on the pipeline is appreciated, dodges your question about promotion, and later sends you an article on Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter: one that assumes false identity or title for the purpose of deception.

Merriam Webster

Here’s the thing. Maybe you are, in fact, an imposter. Maybe you are a Hufflepuff trying to survive in Slytherin. You have so many great qualities, but they won’t ever shine when people keep calling you “mudblood” and putting bugs in your bed. Maybe it’s more Mean Girls.

If you have to be like Regina George to succeed, can you? Do you want to? What might attempting do to you?

I’m telling you this, because I was an imposter. I tried to succeed in a system that told me I would never be allowed to. Where I saw ten times as many women burning out and unappreciated close up as I did snippets of women succeeding at a distance.

I tried “working harder” and “being more confident”. It would sometimes work, or maybe I would sometimes get lucky. And then another reorg, another dude who thought that any effort at improving diversity was “lowering the bar” asking me to prove it again and again and again. The voice in my head that questioned whether I belonged, whether I could ever belong, got louder and louder.

Maybe I’m not good enough.

Maybe I can’t work hard enough.

Maybe I don’t want it enough.

I felt like leaving tech was just a matter of time, and how long I survived a measure of my own resilience.

Getting out of that environment, and working to shed the baggage I picked up when I was trying to be a Slytherin – learning how to have opinions again, learning how to be a decent person, and how to expect decency in others… well that was the best thing I ever did for my career.

I recognise the person who wrote the post about leaving. But I’m not her, anymore. I don’t feel that way. I remember it, but it’s not how I feel. I’m not an imposter anymore – I’m where I belong, working at the intersection of multiple things that interest me. I’m appreciated generally, and treated with respect by my team and peers.

The person I was when I wrote the leaving post couldn’t have imagined this. She had no concept that it was possible.

It is.

Maybe imposter syndrome is a sign. It’s telling you to get out – whilst you can.

And managers, consider that if you have capable people on your team with “imposter syndrome” – the causes are largely environmental, so you may well have given it to them.

One reply on “That Time I Was an Imposter”

Or perhaps, you weren’t an imposter, but you were working with dementors? Still good point, imposter syndrome could be a kind of dementor detector, after all, if I worked with dementors, I might feel like an imposter too.

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