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Women in tech: busting the imposter syndrome myth

by Yinuo Meng

4-minute read

Imposter Syndrome Blog
Yinuo speaking about women in tech at our London office

Busting imposter syndrome: sexism in tech creates self-doubt. It's not individual weakness but societal bias. It’s time for systemic change and self-awareness.

My struggle for recognition and equality

First, let me tell you a story. A female colleague and I were attending a conference for one of the leading front-end technologies. As we excitedly strolled through the myriad of company stalls, we stopped to chat to one another and were immediately asked, “Are you designers or developers?”

What a strange question. The conference was completely developer-oriented, and I hadn’t come across a single designer there. We couldn’t shake off the feeling that we were asked that question because we were women - in a male-dominated framework, women just don’t look like developers. In fact, ever since I became a developer, I’ve been repeatedly mistaken for a designer. 

I knew in my gut that this was misogyny at work, and my experience was echoed in a wonderful article by Melissa McEwan, a back-end developer who’s frequently mistaken for a front-end developer. She accurately identified the underlying bias: “Frontend is considered by many to be the ‘pretty window dressing’, whereas backend is the ‘real’ development.” The same bias applies to the design/development divide. Many wrongly believe that design is an easy job that makes things look pretty, while development is where real, hard work happens.

Historically, women have been assigned the role of a ‘decorator’. Often, a woman has been the decoration herself – think of the beautiful women in a Bond film. Or she decorated the home to provide a pleasing living environment for men. All the while, men got to be James Bond, fight the bad guys, and purchase and own those homes. It’s not hard to see how this legacy is still tainting our cognition.

Why imposter syndrome is a myth

Now, the curious thing is, I didn’t have imposter syndrome at work. At my job, I felt supported and competent, and I had no confidence issues. But when I went out to the wider developer communities, I suddenly encountered this constant questioning, doubting and feeling like I have to prove that I am indeed a developer. I also became afraid – what if I write a bad line of code, say something stupid, and live up to the stereotype that women can’t code? What if I really am not good enough?

Sexist attitudes in the tech industry fueled my imposter syndrome. This experience goes against all the advice I see about imposter syndrome, such as ‘let go of perfectionism’ or ‘cultivate self-compassion’. This is certainly well-intentioned but doesn’t tell me how to tackle someone who is being sexist, how to react when someone asks if I’m a designer at a pricey developer conference, or how to cope with the insecurities that others’ misogyny plants in me.

Luckily, psychologists have begun to question whether imposter syndrome is really an individual problem. In a 2020 paper in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers conclude that “internalised [sic], negative perceptions of the self are borne out of environments and social interactions that lead people to question their abilities and worth”. In other words, imposter syndrome is very much a societal problem borne out of a hostile, unwelcoming environment. By pathologising what’s often the result of systematic sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination, we are blaming individuals for a structural problem.

So, I propose that we refuse to accept imposter syndrome as yet another diagnosis of women’s weaknesses. We instead face it head-on as evidence that discrimination is still prevalent in the tech industry. 

What we can do about sexism in tech

To combat imposter syndrome among women in this field, we must work towards systemic changes that eliminate misogyny. While this may be a gradual process, we can find inspiration and guidance from encouraging instances of progress.

The Women in Tech website provides valuable resources for both women and employers. One notable resource is a list of companies working to increase gender diversity in tech and how they’re doing it. They have also teamed up with McKinsey to conduct research on the significance of early career promotion for women in technical roles and how companies are achieving this. 

Furthermore, there are specialist agencies, like Xena, focused solely on recruiting women into technical roles. Xena has shared practical steps employers can take to make tech a more equal, welcoming and diverse environment

Considering the financial incentives associated with these changes – as McKinsey's research highlights that the most gender-diverse companies are 48% more likely to excel compared to the least gender-diverse – I am hopeful that things will change and look forward to transformations in the tech industry.

Addressing bias in everyday actions:

It's important for everyone to address their biases in their everyday actions. This involves:

  1. Recognising that preconceived notions about what a designer or developer should look like can lead to stereotypes and should be avoided.
  2. Acknowledging that biases are common because we've been exposed to sexist ideas and language from an early age. However, it's crucial not to act on these biases.
  3. Encouraging women who have battled imposter syndrome and continue to grapple with self-doubt and low self-esteem to understand that these struggles are not their fault. They are a result of sexism and structural inequalities in the world, and there is nothing inherently wrong with them.

It’s wonderful that there are diverse ways to enter the industry today - I was self-taught, and the generous spirit of sharing was one of the main things that attracted me to coding. Let’s keep that openness going.