An Opinion Piece on Impostor Syndrome

Throughout the semester we discussed various problems associated with the underrepresentation of women in technology fields, from intimidation by the male macho-bro culture to young girls’ lack of exposure to computer science classes and activities. I’m not about to say that these other problems aren’t real or even major contributors to the low numbers of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math); however, I noticed one specific problem mentioned time and time again during class discussions, speaker lectures, and research findings, and that is impostor syndrome. Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and one of my favorite guest speakers, defines impostor syndrome as the fact that “you’re actually doing fine, but you have the impression that you don’t understand the material as well as others around you, or you get this scholarship or internship and think, ‘I only got it because I’m female, and they’re going to find out that I’m really not that good.’”[1] Unfortunately, Maria Klawe also says that “it’s unbelievable how common it is among women in technical fields where there aren’t a lot of other women.”[2]

This bothers me, because it’s completely true and something I can relate to very well: I experienced impostor syndrome in high school and I know other women who have too. As a result, my contribution to the solution of this problem is the following opinion piece. The realistic outcome of this is that young women in high school and college who may be experiencing impostor syndrome will read this and be able to, first, identify the problem, and then receive the proper guidance to overcome it. The optimal outcome is that everyone who reads this will consider my suggestion for creating a more comfortable school environment for women in STEM. Furthermore, I hope that, upon consideration, my readers begin to take measures in achieving this goal in high school and college classrooms.

[1] Hoffmann, Leah. “What Women Want.” Communications Of The ACM 55.9 (2012): 120-119. Business Source Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2014.

[2] Hoffmann, Leah. “What Women Want.”


I Don’t Belong – The Impostor Syndrome Epidemic

Kelly Tan

Kelly Tan

“The idea is, you’re actually doing fine, but you have the impression that you don’t understand the material as well as others around you, or you get this scholarship or internship and think, ‘I only got it because I’m female, and they’re going to find out that I’m really not that good.’” Those are the words of Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, during an interview with Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). She was asked to discuss impostor syndrome, something Klawe she says she “talk[s] a lot about…because it’s unbelievable how common it is among women in technical fields.” Not only is it common, but it can also become so discouraging as to lead some women to give up a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

This is a major problem because we desperately need more women in STEM fields. It’s absurd that early voice recognition technology only responded to men’s voices, and could not recognize a woman’s voice, because the designers of the product were men. Furthermore, it’s alarming that statistical evidence reveals that the percentage of women receiving undergraduate degrees in computers science was cut in half from 37% in 1985 to 18% in 2012. This underrepresentation of women in tech fields is not solely due to the impostor syndrome; however, I do think it is one of the biggest contributors. Furthermore, I believe there would be a drastic increase in the percentage of females in STEM if we help young women in high school and college overcome impostor syndrome or, better yet, create learning environments that will prevent it.

The first thing young women facing the discouragement of impostor syndrome should know is that they are not alone. Throughout this course I noticed that impostor syndrome was a trend among many of our guest speakers’ experiences in technology fields. Kathryn McKlintock, a web code developer for Amazee Labs, mentions in her lecture that she is affected by impostor syndrome and identifies some her symptoms, such as “disclaiming or understating [her] experience or skill, [feeling] nervous about talking to others in [her] field, especially if those others are highly skilled or experienced, [and attributing] success to chance or luck.” Dr. Kimberly Hambuchen, an engineer for NASA and another one of our guest speakers, says in our interview with her that she has “lived with impostor syndrome for years,” and that a symptom she experiences is not “really [celebrating] the huge major achievements like [she] should.”

Furthermore, as the author of this piece, I think it is important to include my experience with impostor syndrome. During my senior year in high school I decided to take a specific math course because it best fit my schedule. However, this wasn’t just any math course; in fact, it was the toughest math course offered at my school, and perhaps the toughest math course offered in the entire district. A few weeks into this class, I felt like all of my classmates understood the material and that I was simply not gifted enough to comprehend such advanced mathematical concepts. When I received a good grade on a test, I attributed it to luck, and when I received a poor grade I attributed it to not being smart enough. I was always nervous to ask my teacher a question because I assumed I was the only student who didn’t understand a concept and I didn’t want to look stupid. I felt like an impostor; little did I know that I was facing the discouragement that comes with impostor syndrome. In fact, I finished the course with a B; not bad for the toughest course in the district.

However, when I looked back on this course, I completely ignored my grade and continued to regret taking the class because I wasn’t smart enough to handle it. It wasn’t until I heard about impostor syndrome this semester that I began to think back on this math course and realize that I actually knew what I was doing; it’s not luck that gave me a B in the hardest math course in the district! Therefore, the first step in overcoming impostor syndrome is identifying it. Once a woman realizes that she has it, it’s easier for her to look at her work and understand that luck is not responsible for her achievements: she is responsible for her achievements.

Another step in overcoming impostor syndrome, which Google software engineer Julie Pagano suggested during her presentation at PyCon 2014, is to “kill your heroes, [but] not literally.” This directly relates to the nervousness McClintock mentioned she felt when discussing her work with highly skilled or experienced peers. A young woman may think that these peers never fail and that they are judging her based on the mistakes she makes. However, it is important that young women stop comparing themselves to these “heroes” and start understanding that these peers make mistakes too.

Furthermore, many young women experiencing impostor syndrome may find it helpful to fake it ‘till they make it. That is, young women who are feeling discouraged should try pretending like they actually know what they’re doing until they achieve their goals. Better yet, Amy Cuddy suggests in her TED Talk to “fake it till you become it.” Cuddy says that she noticed female students were less confident to speak up and participate in class than male students. She later suggests power posing as a way of faking confidence; having a more upright and open posture can trick a person’s brain into thinking with more confidence. This can help a discouraged young woman feel more confident until she understands that she is fully responsible for her achievements and success, which, therefore, gives her real confidence and allows her to defeat impostor syndrome.

The final, and I believe the most important, way of overcoming impostor syndrome is creating a more encouraging learning environment. In fact, this is more than just a way of overcoming impostor syndrome; it is a way of preventing it. During this past semester I observed two very different class settings; one of a Spanish class and the other of a physics class. Toward the end of the year I realized that I was attending one class that encouraged impostor syndrome (this would be physics) and another that prevented it (props to my Spanish class). I noticed I was an active participant in my Spanish class but that I never raised my hand throughout the entire semester in my physics class. I felt too intimidated, and I can conclude that this is due to one specific experience I had at the beginning of the semester. While discussing with a friend how I obtained my answer to a homework problem, one of my male classmates, who got a different answer, claimed that my answer was wrong because I was female and his answer was correct because he was male and, therefore, inherently more intelligent. What made this worse was that this student was extremely self-confident; he was an active participant in class and was not afraid to make his voice heard in front of our fifty classmates. Unfortunately, this intimidated me to the point where I decided not to participate in class for fear of being wrong.

On the other hand, my Spanish class had a very different environment; one which I think we need to encourage in all classrooms as a way of preventing impostor syndrome in young women. On the first day of class my professor made it very clear that we were all going to make mistakes throughout the semester and that this shouldn’t hinder us from speaking up. She would continue to tell remind us throughout the semester that we should give an answer to a question, even if we knew it was wrong. Finally, she embarrassed all of us; if we weren’t paying attention she would suddenly tell everyone to stand up and stretch during the middle of lecture. I began to notice that this was my only class where every student was an active participant, and where I neither hesitated to answer a question nor felt like a complete failure when I answered a question incorrectly. This is the kind of encouragement we need in high school and college classrooms if we want to improve the number of young women who enter STEM fields. These female students need to have instructors and classmates that encourage them to participate in class and create learning environments where it is acceptable to provide the incorrect answer to a question.

By considering these suggestions, I hope that my female readers incorporate these solutions into their lives so as to overcome or prevent impostor syndrome. Furthermore, I hope that my other readers consider these solutions and find ways of incorporating them into making high school and college class settings more encouraging and comfortable for young women. As a result, I am confident that we will begin to see an increase in the number of women entering and remaining in STEM fields.

Becoming Aware by of Social Media

During this semester in Women and Technology, we would start most classes off with “Women in the News,” where technology and women specific news that students sent in would be shown and talked about with the class. For many students in the class, this would be there first time hearing of this story. The Internet is a massive entity with millions upon millions pieces of content being posted daily. With this clustered market, how is one message distinctive from another? Think about the most well known posts on the internet. Gangnam Style, the Most Interesting Man In The World, and the Keyboard Cat can attribute their success of viral fame due to being highly shared. With dozens of compelling stories of women in the technology being told everyday in niches of the web, a lot of it may not get the opportunity to reach it’s full potential. Without a centralized location to find all the stories, many do go lost and do not provide the whole story of women in technology.

On social media platforms, millions of people are liking and following various of themed pages. From the “Do Something” page to “The Carpet of the Portland Airport” page, people are gathered and exposed to messages for a whole spectrum of subjects. Social media is becoming an extension of people’s identity. As people become who they are on social media, there is not a place to identity, support, or simply agree with the idea of women in technology. With this absence of exposure, this leaves another opportunity for women in technology not to get their voices heard.

Why is social media where society is finding out about things? Social media platforms act as hosts for word-of-mouth to takes place. In place of face-to-face human interaction that word-of-mouth traditionally placed by,[1] people can communicated their new favorites, new dislikes, experiences, and most pertinent to this campaign, their stance. It is widely known a majority of people have various social media accounts.[2] Of the younger generations, 95% for both ages, 12-17 years old and 18-29 go online.[3] Even for the oldest age category, little over half of 65+ go online. People like define today’s time by our constant connectivity due to the creation and wide adoption of smart phones. Of smartphone users, 79% of them have their phone on or near them for all but two hours of their waking day.[4] Connectivity is crucial part of people’s days that does not stop.[5] In finding a solution for the lack of centralization of a woman’s voice in the technology on social media and online, the research about women’s interaction on the Internet has shown that women are more likely to use social media for maintaining relationships, self-help, entertainment, and sharing.[6] This further supports the endeavor to create social media accounts that will thrive off the shareability of them.

The most optimistic outcome arising from my solution would be a campaign that goes madly viral. In the ultimate situation, these social media accounts would garner a large following that are highly interactive with posts. These followers would follow through all available platforms and frequently visiting the host blog. Another ultimate goal is to inspire women and girls alike by these posts and initiated change. I want these posts to bring consciousness about the good and bad about women and technology to people that would otherwise know nothing of. Realistically, if I promote and continue regularly posting on this campaign, I believe I could garner a following from those visiting our class’s website. If it inspires one person to make a change or become more knowledgeable about women and technology, this campaign will be successful.

On these four social media platforms, I will share the stories and events about women and technology. This can do with any stage of a woman’s experience of technology, from various points of education to her career to her personal life. This page will also highlight upon what companies and organizations are doing to promote higher women involvement in technology. Research has shown that positive associated posts are more likely to be shared than negative.[7] While it is easy to be negative about the large margin of women missing from a very important industry and the underlying issues and causes of that, it will be very important to be proactive instead of reactive with the posts. These platforms will also take into account the importance of newsworthiness in posts in order to stay relevant with current affairs. Posts will be posted multiple times a day everyday for the first three months to add content to the pages. Thereafter, posts will be made when deemed appropriate. The final aspect to this centralization of all things women and tech will be the continuation of the websites with posting articles and videos in the news section.

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[1] Berger, Jonah. Contagious: Why Things Catch on. 2013.

[2] “Social Media Fact Sheet.” Pew Research Center’s Internet American Life Project RSS. Accessed December 8, 2014.

[3] Mitchell, Amy, and Dana Page. “State of the News Media.” Mashable. March 1, 2013. Accessed December 8, 2014.

[4] Stadd, Allison. “79% Of People 18-44 Have Their Smartphones With Them 22 Hours A Day [STUDY].” ALl Twitter. April 3, 2013. Accessed December 8, 2014.

[5] Stadd, Allison. “79% Of People 18-44 Have Their Smartphones With Them 22 Hours A Day [STUDY].” ALl Twitter. April 3, 2013. Accessed December 8, 2014.

[6] Akhtar, Omar. “Infographic: How Men and Women Use Social Media and Smartphones Differently.” Ruby Media Corporation. April 2, 2014. Accessed December 8, 2014.

[7] Berger, Jonah, and Katherine L Milkman. “What Makes Online Content Viral?” Journal of Marketing Research: 1-17. Accessed December 18, 2014.

Maria Klawe

(0:02) How do you increase student’s knowledge about this lack of diversity and the importance of closing the gap, (specifically student’s who might not be privy to these kinds of lectures and aware of this gender gap)?


So I think one of the most important things is to talk about it. It’s really surprising that this is the only discipline where participation by women has declined. So talking about how unusual it is that you have these great jobs, and not enough people for them, and that women could do really well in computer science, and they’re not doing it. So you know, I actually I mean there have been articles in the press, there are blogs about it, there’s tv and radio. But I actually I think among student communities [you should] put it on your Facebook page, share it with your friends, encourage your friends to make it go viral.


(1:07) Do you have any advice for girls or minorities who are at universities where they are especially underrepresented, somewhere where they’re not as fortunate as we are at Trinity to kind of have equal footing? Or places where the “bro-culture” is very prevalent?


I think one of the really important things is to talk to the department chair. In my experience, the place that most change comes from is the department chair. It’s also really important and it sounds terrible but, whining is not usually the right approach. Usually being constructive and optimistic and saying ‘I’d love to work with you to change this’ and ‘here are some of the ideas I have’. You can look at things like the Anita Borg Institute, NCWIT (National Center for Women & Information Technology), there’s a variety of organizations that basically give you a bunch of tools to make change. So going to your department chair with enthusiasm and preferably a couple of you so it’s not so scary, and saying we’d really love to help make this a place where women have a great experience. We’ve looked up all of these resources and here are the kinds of things that make a difference, and we’d like to work with you to make it happen. I think most faculty members, particularly department chairs, when they have a couple of energetic and enthusiastic young women coming and saying we want to help you change the culture, they embrace it. The second thing is, if you try that, and you basically get a department chair who is sort of too tired, go to the department administrator or the secretary and ask who the most friendly or the person most likely to follow to be interested in this, and then follow that advice. So start with the chair because it’s always best to start there, but then if you get pushed back or if you just don’t get a lot of enthusiasm with them saying, “I’m really too busy to take this on”, then you talk to the secretary or administrator, because she will always know, it’s almost always a she, and she will know who cares about this issue.