I have been a professional musician, and a teacher and have worked in community and student leadership development. Now I'm in tech. I'm a proud Bootcamp grad who started as a full-stack developer. I currently work as a DevOps engineer. My real passion is to work toward increasing equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging in the tech community and the industry overall. Two key barriers that I see standing in the way of some possible growth toward DIB are effective communication, conflict fluency, and imposter syndrome. We're going to talk about the history and background of imposter syndrome and what it means for a woman in tech. We are going to push back on this concept of imposter syndrome, especially for women-identifying folks and for other under-represented and under-supported groups in tech.
The term used in the original research done in the 1970s by two researchers in the United States was called imposter phenomenon. Since words matter, let's talk a little bit about these words. The word phenomenon sounds light, interesting, unique, exceptional, and fleeting. It's a very different word and a different feeling than syndrome, syndrome which sounds somewhat terrifying. It's something that impacts major and multiple life aspects. It's usually attached to medical disorders. The first thing to think about is that imposter syndrome was not real because the original term was imposter phenomenon. It was somewhere in popular writings and popular culture around this that it became imposter syndrome.
What is imposter phenomenon? To get to the definition of what that is involves a misperception of self. Regardless of your accomplishments, education, or achievements, you still might feel self-doubt. You might push harder and harder and harder but never make any real progress. You're the one that keeps moving the goalposts ahead. The other aspect of imposter phenomenon, as it was originally defined, is fear and guilt. Fear of being found out as a fraud, fear of failing, and fear of succeeding. You lose either way and feel guilty even when you do succeed. A third aspect of the definition got me interested in the first place. Imposter phenomenon is studied environmentally, meaning it's studied as a reaction to particular events or things.
This started to make me interested in the origin of these feelings. If they were coming from the environment, maybe there's something about the environment that's causing these feelings to happen. The other thing about imposter phenomenon is that it is not a mental disorder. It is not a formal diagnosis. It's not recognized in the DSM or the ICD, the International Classification of Diseases. Here, in the United States, with the health insurance model that we have, this means that if someone feels like they have imposter phenomenon, there isn't any help available for them under medical insurance or employer insurance. It also means that there aren't any reasonable accommodations under the ADA, the Americans with Disability Act. That's different from other things recognized, like anxiety, low self-esteem, or depression.
Suppose you feel like you have imposter syndrome, and it's negatively impacting you, and you live and work in the United States. In that case, the only thing that you can do is pay a lot of money for some self-help books, pay for a full-day workshop on how to overcome imposter syndrome, or maybe watch a YouTube video with a ton of affiliate links. In other words, you have to spend your money to try to figure this out. That makes me a little bit suspicious of it in the first place, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to start to push back on this idea. The last aspect of the environment with imposter phenomenon is that it only appears in one area of life. That could be the workplace, or that could be in an academic setting or relationships, but it is defined as only appearing in one area. That means that if you are out and about and you're shopping for something, whether it's groceries or new clothes, you feel totally fine. You can pick what you need, feel like a success, and not worry about failure at the grocery store. Then maybe when you go to work, all of a sudden, you do feel like a failure or like a fraud. Why would that be?
In the other half of this language, we talked about syndrome versus phenomenon. The other aspect is the word imposter. I have a real problem with the word imposter. An imposter is pretending to be someone else, looking the way someone else looks, acts or talks, or even thinks like someone else. Inherently, if we're talking about women engineers or women-identifying engineers, that means that we have an image in our mind, or that the tech industry has an image in their mind of what an ideal engineer should look like or talk like or act, and that we don't match that. When I first examined this idea, what is my idea of a perfect engineer, what's in my mind, it was a White cisgender, male, heterosexual middle-aged with a beard who rode a bicycle. Not to pick on that group, that happens to be my older brother.
That was just my idea.
The reality is that no matter how hard I work, no matter how many skills I gain, I will never be that because I don't have those identities. I would always feel like an imposter. I needed to correct the image that I had in my mind of what an ideal engineer should look like. I would say even more that it's really important that your ideal engineer be you. It can be a future you. It can be you with that new certification. It can be you with some additional skills. But it needs to be you. If it's not you, then you're almost guaranteed to feel like an imposter and almost guaranteed to fail. There is no singular way of being an engineer. I look like an engineer, you look like an engineer, I act like one, you act like one. When we're looking at the fact that imposter phenomenon or imposter syndrome is environmental, could part of the issue be the systems and structures that are implicitly or sometimes explicitly maintained by those who are in them or by those who benefit most from them?
Some of this connects with some excellent work in diversity, equity, and inclusion done by scholars like Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey. Together, they wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review called Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. This article came out a little bit over a year ago. They both have books out this year if you're interested in reading more in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space. Their scholarship about imposter syndrome was impactful for me. I want to share a quote from that article, "The impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases were categorically absent when the concept of imposter syndrome was developed. Many groups were excluded from the study, namely women of color and people of various income levels, genders, and professional backgrounds. Imposter syndrome blames individuals without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts foundational to how it manifests. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work, instead of fixing the places where women work."
That article aligned with some of what I had been feeling personally about imposter syndrome. I had heard about it in Bootcamp. I had been warned about it. I didn't know anything about it until someone told me. I took that information and lined it up with some of my feelings. I became more and more curious and a little bit suspicious about its origin and really what it could mean for women in tech in particular. I just want to reiterate that my goal in pushing back on imposter syndrome and pushing back on imposter phenomenon is not to tell anyone you do or don't have it. You should decide how you feel and what you want to do about it. It's important to plant this seed that it might be possible that imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon is less within a person. It's not something that just magically comes out of us, but more because of the systems and structures and dynamics of best practices. Most companies will say immediately that they want to hire and have diverse, high-performing teams. Bringing those new diverse individuals onto a team without adjusting the existing culture and without adjusting the workplace at all is a recipe for people not feeling like they belong. It is a recipe for people not feeling welcome and leaving. And, of course, it could lead to feelings of imposter syndrome.
If you're working with colleagues in tech, especially women-identifying or other under-represented, under-supported groups, and you hear someone talking about imposter syndrome, send them this way. Send them to the podcast, or share what you've learned here. If we're calling experiences in the workplace that are negative or even microaggressions imposter syndrome, then we're missing out on a bigger problem.