Is Impostor Syndrome keeping women out of open technology and culture?

A woman looking seriously into the camera with a black background

Am I faking it?

"I'm not any good at writing. All those positive reviews are just people being nice to me."

"I'm not a real programmer, I just write code to get my job done."

"If I ask a question at work, everyone will know I've been faking it all along and I'll get fired."

If any of these thoughts are familiar, there's an excellent chance that you're actually good at what you do – you're just one of the many victims of Impostor Syndrome.

Impostor Syndrome is the (incorrect) feeling that you're a fraud, that you're not skilled enough for your role, and that you will be found out and exposed as an impostor eventually. More people than you realize have Impostor Syndrome (including many people you respect) for a very simple reason: If you're afraid of being exposed as a fraud, the last thing you want to do is tell anyone about it!

The Ada Initiative fights Impostor Syndrome because it is a major factor holding back women in open source software, Wikipedia, open hardware, and similar areas. Here's what we've learned from helping over 300 women in open technology and culture overcome Impostor Syndrome.

Is fighting Impostor Syndrome is important to you? Please donate to support our work now! Our 2013 fundraising drive ends August 31st.

What causes Impostor Syndrome?

Where does Impostor Syndrome come from? In fields like open source software, academia, and writing, our work is often presented in public and open to criticism from everyone. What makes it worse is that we usually only see the finished products of other, more experienced people's work — the beautiful code, the award-winning novel, the revolutionary research paper — without seeing the years of study, practice, and work that lie behind it. We compare ourselves with an illusory ideal of a personal who is "naturally" good at their work – and so do others.

That's the official story of Impostor Syndrome. But it's not the whole story. How often have you heard comments like these?

A group of people sitting on the floor with cards and paper in the middle of them

"Fake geek girls"?

"Fake geek girl. I bet she's never even seen Star Wars."

"Are you here with your boyfriend?"

"Are there any women coders in open source?"

Often Impostor Syndrome is a completely rational response to being called an impostor over and over. In fields that women are not "supposed" to be good at, and sexism is rife, women are more likely to face Impostor Syndrome. It's a myth that most people, when their skills, authority and legitimacy are regularly questioned, can answer with a giant "NOT SO, I'LL SHOW YOU!" Rather, when your community tells you over and over that you're an impostor, you start to believe it.

The result is women, in addition to being undermined by others, internalize their criticism and undermine ourselves. We choose easier tasks that we believe are more suited to our skills; we apply for lower level jobs than our confident peers; we don't give speak at conferences; we don't step up as role models, mentors and teachers because we feel we have nothing to give to others. And who can blame us? We're just responding to feedback from people we respect. Even those of us who know about our own Impostor Syndrome have to spend extra energy fighting with it when it comes time to share our work with others. Others see us underrating our own work and take it as confirmation of their Impostor Syndrome. We are not islands.

How can we fight back against Impostor Syndrome?

All those weird shirts I wear almost everyday, I did not steal them from my boyfriend: they're mine, I earnt them, I am not an impostor. — Flore Allemandou

What we've learned is that bringing people together to help with each other's Impostor Syndrome works. It's easy to question ourselves individually – "Maybe I just got lucky" – but when you're in a room full of people you respect and most of them admit to Impostor Syndrome, it's hard to believe that we all "just got lucky."

When seemingly almost every woman in open technology and culture has Impostor Syndrome (it's about 9 out of 10 at the AdaCamp unconference), it is proof that we're probably dealing with something other than genuine personal inadequacies. (Of course, some people worry that they don't have real Impostor Syndrome and that at any second they'll be caught, found out as an Impostor Syndrome fraud. If you've had this thought, then you definitely have Impostor Syndrome.)

I didn’t feel like a "real" kernel hacker because I hadn’t been doing it that long, and I "only" knew how to write device drivers. I was afraid someone would start asking me about the scheduler, or file systems, or real time Linux, or any of those "real" kernel subsystems. – Sarah Sharp

Impostor Syndrome is a major reason women in open tech/culture don't take on leadership roles, leave the community after a few years, or never join in the first place. That's why the Ada Initiative teaches women how to overcome Impostor Syndrome at all of our AdaCamp conferences. Impostor Syndrome training was so popular that our advisor Denise Paolucci turned her advice into a presentation she has given at several open source conferences. You can view a video and transcript of her Kicking Impostor Syndrome In the Head talk here on the Ada Initiative site.

Here are some of the tips that came out of AdaCamp about what you can do personally to fight your own Impostor Syndrome. (What communities can do about it comes next.)

  • Talk about the issue with people you trust: When we hear from others that Impostor Syndrome is a very very common problem, it becomes hard to believe our feelings of being a fraud are real.
  • Ask your friends what they think of you: Usually, other people have a more realistic (higher) opinion of your work. Often, our friends will remind of us major accomplishments we have completely forgotten about! "Oh yeah, I did win that hack-a-thon/publish that story/win that award."
  • Seven women with arms on each others' shoulders

    Fighting Impostor Syndrome together at AdaCamp
    CC BY-SA Adam Novak

    Go to an in-person Impostor Syndrome session: There's nothing like being in a room full of people you respect and discovering that 90% of them have Impostor Syndrome. The Ada Initiative runs Impostor Syndrome training at every AdaCamp conference.
  • Teach others about our field: We gain confidence in our own knowledge and skill, as well as helping others avoid some Impostor Syndrome shoals.
  • Ask questions when we don't know: It is scary in the moment ("Only an impostor wouldn't know this already!"), but it cuts off the extended agony of uncertainty and fear of resulting failure that makes us actually fail.
  • Build alliances: Reassure and build up our friends, who will reassure and build us up in turn. If they don't, find new friends!
  • Own our accomplishments: Keep actively recording and reviewing what we have done, what we have built, and what successes we've had.
  • Re-orient ourselves around our values and worth: When called upon to step up and show our work, reflect on our core values and how our work reflects them.

What can you do to stop Impostor Syndrome from keeping women out of your community?

Of the original seven [women in my first CS] class, I was the only one that graduated. Some were told by professors they were ‘not good enough’, that they should ‘quit while they were ahead’. The older engineering buildings at my school had once turned old closets into women’s restrooms despite a men’s room on every floor. — Connie Berardi

The flip side of coaching women on how to overcome Impostor Syndrome is building communities that don't create Impostor Syndrome in the first place. It's not fair to attempt to achieve gender equality entirely by asking women to change to fit the world (nor is it likely to succeed). Your community needs to be designed so that there isn't a huge gap between the actual skill required to participate or lead, and the apparent skill required! Impostor syndrome thrives in communities with arbitrary, unnecessary standards, where harsh criticism is the norm, and where secrecy surrounds the actual process of getting work done.

Here are some of the changes you can make in your community to make it less likely that impostor syndrome will flourish:

  1. Discourage hostility and meanness: When people in your project regularly flame each other to a crisp, that's a natural breeding ground for Impostor Syndrome, as well as discouraging to people who already have Impostor Syndrome.
  2. Get rid of hidden barriers to participation: Be explicit about welcoming new contributors, and thoroughly document how someone goes about making their first contribution to your project.
  3. Two women looking excited

    We were beginners once too!
    CC BY-SA Adam Novak

    As a leader, show your own uncertainties and demonstrate your own learning process: When people see those they respect struggling or admitting they didn't already know everything when they started, it makes it easier to have realistic opinions of their own work.
  4. Review your rules for contribution: Do all of them actually improve your project? Are they unnecessarily difficult to follow? Are some of them actually arbitrary "STAY OUT" signs?
  5. Reward and encourage people for mentoring newcomers: For example, the Patch Pilot system makes shepherding new contributions through the patch process the responsibility of a different core developer each week.
  6. Don't make it personal when someone's contribution isn't up to snuff: When enforcing necessary quality standards, don't make it about the person. They aren't wrong or stupid or a waste of space, they've simply done one piece of work that is not yet of the quality you need.

Impostor Syndrome hurts women and hurts the communities they can't participate in. But knowledge is power: Now you know the enemy, and you are on your way to victory. Or to your first contribution, perhaps. Or your first contribution that you feel bloody well proud of.


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Two women hugging and smiling

Fighting Impostor Syndrome together
CC BY-SA Adam Novak