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.