19 Sep 2020
The Difficulties of Imposter Syndrome When You Are the Only Woman in the Room
Lately, I’ve been experiencing imposter syndrome. This is largely due to starting a new job in a new company with incredibly bright and talented individuals who know a lot about things I have never spent much time thinking about. It is probably also due to moving to the other side of the world and existing in a space where, for the first time in my life, I am not fluent in the dominant language. Suddenly I feel like I am at the start of my software engineering journey again, trying to prove that the company made the right choice in hiring me. I feel like an imposter who is likely at any moment to be found out.
And then there is the fact that as a woman in tech I am an imposter. In the eyes of society, I do not fit what a software engineer looks like, dresses like, what they talk and think about outside of work. When people talk about imposter syndrome, they stress the fact that it is not real, that feeling like an imposter is not the same as being an imposter. And while this is true, for women in tech, there is physical evidence every day that we are not “where we belong”. This experience is what I would like to talk about today.
Rationally, I know that I am not an imposter. I was hired by Balena because I passed their technical tests. I interviewed with them and they valued my communication skills and my ability to explain my thinking while I solved technical problems. I went through the same interviewing process as everyone else and at no point did I lie or fabricate any knowledge or experience I had. I was hired because I met the requirements for the role.
The problem is, imposter syndrome is not something that comes from the rational part of your brain. It comes from that nagging emotional subconscious that responds to external stimuli in obscure and unexpected ways. And this emotional part of my brain has been fed a stream of experiences and messages that tell it, over and over again, that I do not fit the image of a software engineer.
A story: one time I was out for lunch with a couple of my co-workers and the CEO of the little tech startup that I was working for. After lunch, we were standing up to pay and we came across the guy who had just bought the restaurant we have been eating at. He was excited to meet his customers and wanted to know a little about us and why we were eating there today. The CEO, Tom, told him that we worked for a tech startup and the man nodded his head enthusiastically and said - “Yes, you look like a software developer”. Now Tom does not write software. He is a law student who started a company and taught himself how to run it. Primarily his work was in sales and the other many thousands of things that are required of a CEO. But never fear, because right after saying this, the man turned to my college Brendon and exclaimed - “Don’t worry, you look like a software developer too”.
I knew the man was being kind and trying to connect with us but I couldn’t help but feel a little angry. What did he think me and Kristy looked like standing next to Tom and Brendon? Were we the secretaries? I wish I had had the foresight to ask him because I am genuinely interested in what he would have said. Unfortunately, as is the case with so many situations like this in life, we had walked out of the restaurant and back to the office before I had time to think of a response.
This is just one of many such experiences for me. I have a handful of stories of people telling me I don’t look like a software engineer, or asking if I’m sure if it’s the right career for me. But these are the explicit examples, and in some ways, they are the easier stimuli to filter out. These people have obvious unconscious biases and they make me worry about how pervasive this is in the industry. They do not make me question my right to be here because I can see that they are ignorant.
The things that creep in are the meetings where my voice is the only one in a certain octave. Where my colleagues talk about the largely masculine things that get up to in their weekends when I spend my time sewing and shopping for vintage clothes. It’s the discussions of games I do not play and the fact that they have knowledge of software and computers before 2011 (in general men in the industry have been tinkering with computers since they were children but women usually start much later in life - did not realised they were into technology until they were exposed accidentally in some other career).
If my day were a movie, it would fail the Bendal test. I never talk to women and when I do, we never talk about the product (I have replaced men with the product here since it seemed like a more appropriate metaphor). The other women in the company are in support roles. They help schedule meetings, send packages, record our contact details. I am not making a value judgement about this work. It is vital to the company and can be a rewarding role with plenty of career progression. Sadly, it also tends to be valued and thus paid much less than the technical work. I don’t agree with this but I also feel that is a topic for another blog post.
The question is - how am I supposed to feel that I belong when this stark fact is in front of me? In this environment, is it surprising at all that I deal with imposter syndrome?
This blog post is not about victimising myself. I love my career and hugely value the wonderful men that I have the benefit of working with every day. I do not want them to change who they are or what they are interested in. They should continue to ride their BMXs and talk about pre-2011 code, while I sew my dresses and obsess over creating the perfect cateye. But I would also love for us to have this discussion openly. I would love for managers to be aware of how imposter syndrome might impact women in the team more than the men. For us to think of ways where we can be extra encouraging, a little more available, and nurturing to those on the team who don’t fit the dominant image of a software engineer. I for one reach out to all new people when they start Balena and ask them how they are doing, let them know that imposter syndrome is normal and that they can hit me up if they have any questions. In particular, I check in with the women in the team and make sure they know that they are doing a good job.
Most of all I would love for us to breakdown the stereotypes in society. Teach girls how to code and encourage more women to enter the industry. With more diversity, this problem will go away, but unfortunately, this takes time and heaps of work. For now, I am trying to embrace being an imposter. For things to change, somebody has to be the first.