Sarah T

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.

My Experience with HTML

I took a computer science class my first year of high school, but other than that I have had no experience with coding. I remember not enjoying that class because my teacher wasn’t actually a computer science teacher, but he had worked with computers in the army and so it was difficult for me to understand what he was talking about half the time. This was my first experience with the HTML language and I was expecting it to be much more difficult than it was. I had an easier time remembering certain steps and lines of code than I thought I would. I might consider continuing the HTML course on Code Academy if I had more time because I would like to be able to design a website portfolio for my photography.

I would definitely recommend Code Academy to friends and family. It was a very smooth and easy start to learning how to code. In fact, I plan on mentioning my experience to my younger brother; he loves to play with computer parts and enjoys video games so I think he might enjoy learning how to code. I think Code Academy is a great way to start learning how to code and I think this should be incorporated more into the class room setting if it has not been already. I know I would have had a much better time in my computer science class in high school if I had been using Code Academy instead of trying to translate my teacher’s technical computer science instruction into my coding. Below is a screen capture showing how far I got through the Code Academy tutorials for HTML. You can see my google search for annoying TV celebrities in the left tab. Yes, I had to cheat on that part.

screen capture of coding

A Look into Women in Technology in the 2000s

This picture depicts  a poster at the University of Valle around 2000 that was meant to support women entering technology and fight discrimination against females, especially minorities, in technology fields.
This picture depicts a poster at the University of Valle around 2000 that was meant to support women entering technology and fight discrimination against females, especially minorities, in technology fields.

This photo can be found at Colores Mari’s personal Flickr

For additional reading about female minorities in technology fields, please read The 10 Startling Stats About Minorities in STEM.

In the 2000s, one study showed that more successful startups during this time, such as slideshare, had women in senior positions, while less successful and unsuccessful ones did not.

The original illustration can be found with the VentureBeat  article “SlideShare integrates with LinkedIn for a match made in heaven.”

For further reading about women and successful startups please read this article about women in successful startups.

The non-profit Girls in Tech was created in 2007. The purpose behind Girls in Tech is to encourage and help female leaders in technology grow and pursue their goals in their specific fields.

This image can be found with the Women && Tech interview with Lucia Mariani-Vena.

For additional reading about Girls in Tech please visit their homepage

This photo is meant to depict the decrease in girls considering to major in computer science in the 2000s.

This photo can be found in the University of Illinois at Chicago Photo Archives.

For visit the article Women in IT: The Facts to read more about the decrease of female students intending to major in computer sience during the 2000s.

A 2008 study showed that during this time 56% of women were leaving technology fields mid-career.

This photo can be found at The Chive.

For additional reading about women leaving technology fields midcareer during the 2000s, please visit the article Women in IT: The Facts.

Stereotype Threat and Its Effect on Women in STEM

Today, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, are largely dominated by men. Though there are many claims as to why more men than women pursue jobs in these fields, one important claim is that there is a negative stereotype that men are smarter and will be more successful in these subjects than women, which discourages women and can lower their performance in these areas.

One crucial study that supports this claim was carried out by Steven J. Spencer and Claude M. Steele in an attempt to test how women’s awareness of negative stereotypes, or stereotype threat, affected their performance on a math test. The study showed that when men and women participants were told of gender differences (men testing higher than women in the past), women performed poorly in comparison to men. However, when the participants were not told of gender differences, men and women performed equally well.[1] Another study by Toni Schmader and Matthias Mehl showed that when female scientists talked to female colleagues, they sounded completely competent, but when they talked to male colleagues, their speech sounded uncertain. Schmader and Matthias suggest that women sounded more uncertain when talking to male colleagues because they were aware of the stereotype threat and were worried about sounding incompetent and confirming this stereotype.[2] Finally, a study carried out by Anne Maass, Claudio D’Ettole, and Mara Cadinu, tested the performance of females in two online chess matches. Although this study did not test performance in a STEM related subject, it showed that when female players were unaware of their opponent’s sex, they performed equally well with males, but when the females knew their opponent was male, their performances weakened.[3]

I think this claim is completely valid and has strong evidence supporting it. In high school, my calculus class had mostly male students and was taught by a male teacher. I can think of times when I felt I was not as smart as some of the boys in my class and thinking that it was just because they were more mathematically gifted than me. From having this experience and reading these studies, I think it is important that we encourage an open mindset in STEM classes and that we encourage girls from a young age to explore their interests in STEM fields.

[1] Spencer, Steven J., Claude M. Steele, and Diane M. Quinn. “Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 35.1 (1999): 4-28. Web. 16 Sept. 2014

[2] Vedantam, Shankar. “How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science.” NPR. NPR, 12 July 2012. Web. 16 Sept. 2014

[3] Maass, Anne, Claudio D’ettole, and Mara Cadinu. “Checkmate? The Role of Gender Stereotypes in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport.” European Journal of Social Psychology 38.2 (2008): 231-45. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.

Proposed course: The New Literacy

The course would be titled The New Literacy. The final product would be an iPhone app and the whole course would be geared toward teaching students all of the processes that go into making the app, ie design, coding, graphics, layout, etc.

The course would have no prerequisites and it would be 3 hours. Ideally everyone would have to take this course and it would count toward common curriculum. For students who are more experienced in any aspect of the course there would be an option to work either in groups or individually if they feel they would like to be challenged more.
The course would go over design and layout, using adobe products such as photoshop, indesign, illustrator and premiere (they would be required to host a video in their app). Then they would move into the coding aspect of the course, it would also cover some of the logic behind coding.
At the end of the semester students will present their iPhone app to the class and constructive criticism will be offered.