Thursday, July 30, 2009

Are you an impostor?

What is the Impostor Syndrome?
According to good ol’ Wikipedia:
"Regardless of what level of success they may have achieved in their chosen field of work or study or what external proof they may have of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced internally they do not deserve the success they have achieved and are actually frauds. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they were more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be."

Last year at GHC2008, my favorite session was The Impostor Panel, where five incredibly successful women stood up one by one on stage and revealed that they were impostors. Telle Whitney, CEO of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, mentions in her blog post about the panel:
“By talking about your experience, you have a chance to make a difference in others lives.”

So, Are you an Impostor?
My name is Serena, and I am an impostor.

I might not be your stereotypical nerd and I might not be the most tech-savvy geek in the world. I like the color pink, I like wearing dresses, and I like to paint my nails. But does that make me less of a geek?

I distinctly remember the first time I stepped into my first computer science class, almost four years ago. I had arrived early and I remember walking up to the big auditorium doors where the rest of the students were waiting to get in, and thinking "Why are there only guys here? Maybe this is the wrong classroom." I was seconds away from turning around, until I heard one of the students mention the course code. This was my class.

As I walked into the auditorium, I quickly scanned the rows for a friendly face to sit beside. I distinctly remember feeling like I stood out like a sore thumb in my bright pink t-shirt amid the crowd of males shuffling down the rows with their worn out black heavy-metal t-shirts and greasy hair.

And then I saw it; a friendly face waving at me, another female. We became friends instantly. We both went into the Computer Science program without taking any previous computer courses at all, and felt like we were falling behind quickly. After the first few weeks, we still had no idea what was going on in class and both failed our very first university midterm (though unfortunately not our last, ha!). What did we get ourselves into? We were convinced that people were beginning to whisper "what is SHE doing here, girls can't program". Unfortunately throughout the years, that feeling of insecurity never really went away.

We never felt like we belonged here, but we weren't going to give up that easily. I felt discouraged and disappointed, but I at least I wasn't alone. Assignments that only took about an hour for other students to finish, took us weeks to complete, but we always helped each other along the way. We were impostors in disguise, trying to fool everyone into believing that we belonged.

And now four years later, somehow we survived. Having that support network to motivate and encourage each other was vital for my success, and this became one of my main objectives in establishing the CU-WISE group on campus. Hopefully it can make a difference in someone else's life. We've already experienced so much success over the past two years, and are fortunate enough to be able to present a session at GHC this October.

Closing thoughts..
Why do we underestimate ourselves so much? Do others secretly feel the same way? Are we all impostors in disguise?


Gail Carmichael said...

Worth the wait - great post! I'm sorting out my thoughts for my version...

Barbora Dej said...

Thanks for the story Serena. I enjoyed it very much because I relate to what you say. This is also why I am so passionate about WISE. I am very happy to have re-built it with such awesome women!