Laurian’s Living the Impostor Syndrome

One of the many awesome women I met at Grace Hopper posted this experience she had with a student:

So far in the grading it seems like everyone did their fair share of the work. Then I get to the last group I was going to grade for the night. It is two men and a woman. I read the men’s reports first where one of the men was a superstar, but they rated the other man and woman as doing great work; both men agree, the female student in the group did fantastic work.

Then, I get to her report. She gives herself the worst grade I’ve seen assigned to anyone else thus far. So I read through her explanation where she says that she doesn’t feel that she contributed as much, that she doesn’t have the same skill set, and so forth. I just about wanted to cry. Here was a young, energetic, stellar female programmer who when comparing herself against her male colleagues felt that she didn’t equate. I put my computer down, and decided to call it quits for the night while I ruminated on what I was going to do.

Laurian ended up sending the young woman an email about impostor syndrome and urging her to learn more, as well as letting her know that despite her bad self-evaluation, her peers actually thought she was doing a great job. You can read the letter here. I’m betting a lot of folk would love to have a teacher like Laurian who was willing to go out of her way to make sure you knew you were doing just fine, and that feeling insecure about it is something that happens to many competent people.

I’ve most definitely seen impostor syndrome among my students, and while I’ve never had to send an email like Laurian’s, I’ve often spent a lot of time congratulating students (loudly) during tutorials and encouraging them to show off their awesome work to others. Sometimes it’s amazing that the students who were too afraid to share at the beginning of the term are making all kinds of fun variations on their tutorials and bragging to their friends (and me!) by the end of the term. I’m lucky to teach such talented students.

So my question to you is two-fold:
(a) How have you combatted impostor syndrome in others?
(b) How have people helped you out with your own feelings of insecurity?

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About terriko

Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at

8 thoughts on “Laurian’s Living the Impostor Syndrome

  1. Quill

    So. Three days of complete silence in the comments on this post. Has anyone else felt like they were the least competent and/or most-on-edge as the only female Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) student in the room? Has anyone else been convinced that they do not belong? I’m likely to ramble here, and I’m sorry if I’m not helpful to anyone.

    I spent the two previous academic years as a female computer science (CS) major at a competitive, somewhat well known engineering school. I know I was somewhere in the middle of the pack my first semester freshman year but I was incredibly uncomfortable with the gendered environment in which I found myself. During my freshman year, I also know that there were seventy-something male computer science students on track to graduate in 2012 and four female CS students in that class year. Four. I don’t know how many there are left, but one of the big reasons I switched to a social science major was the isolating, sexist, depersonalizing, stressful, utterly loathsome environment in which I found myself. A friend of mine, J, goes to another engineering school and graduated with a CS degree. When she entered, there were twenty or so women in her major – less than five of them graduated in computer science. Most transferred into Biology or Management or Psychology or something else, *anything* else, that had a better gender ratio. Since graduating, J has gone to work in education, as a middle-school teacher.

    I’m torn because there’s still time, I could go back to studying computer science. I do think female representation in STEM is Important and I hate myself for taking the “easy” option and leaving a hostile environment (rather than continuing to try to fix it). I liked programming at one point, before I became convinced I could not do it as well as the boys so I might as well not try. On the other hand, my experiences at this college have pretty much killed my enthusiasm for programming and I always had a lot of interest in this social science.

    Randomly, the school changed who was advising me in CS last year, to one of the few female professors at the school, who had recently arrived to teach CS. I told Professor G about some of the issues I’d had. She said, and I quote, “It never gets better. You just learn to deal with it.” I…I’ve always really been interested in feminism and *cared* about the social justice things and stuff and I have no idea how to even minimize that never mind turn it off and I can’t learn to deal with it and so I *can’t* go into a field like that. If it never gets better, I never should have been a CS major in the first place because the past two years have just been such crap. If it never gets better, the women who don’t “wash out” either have gonads of solid steel or, like my friend J, simply don’t experience a lot of what I did. Maybe J was lucky, and missed things or they missed her, or maybe I was specially unlucky and more happened. Maybe the fact that J’s school has a “computer science women” student organization made a difference in that school’s culture, whereas my school has only one specifically woman-oriented organization (the Society for Women Engineers, which here is lacking in members and primarily about professional networking).

    Did you, grown-up women of the STEM fields, ever come close to “washing out” and switching to something less male-dominated? Does it ever get better for women in STEM, anywhere? Did you learn to “deal with it”? How? Are there grown-up women here who did leave STEM fields and see their lives and stress levels improve as a result?

    1. Restructure!

      So. Three days of complete silence in the comments on this post. Has anyone else felt like they were the least competent and/or most-on-edge as the only female Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM) student in the room?

      I have no answers to the post’s questions (a) and (b), so I didn’t comment.

      Yes, at different times, there were two small-sized STEM courses (~10 students) where I was the only female student, and each time I ended up dropping them, causing them to become all-male classes. The first one was because I had serious family problems going on at the time, and the second one was because of a personal reason. Or at least these were my rationalizations.

      I felt really bad for dropping these courses, because it felt like I was letting down my entire gender, and by dropping the course, the male students’ stereotypes about women would be confirmed.

      For the second one, I was seriously being socially Othered because of my gender. For both the first and second one, stereotype threat was set to maximum in how I viewed myself taking the course(s).

    2. Lindsey Kuper

      I’m a little surprised at the dearth of comments on this post, too. Maybe it’s because a lot of GF readers are students and are busy studying for finals at this time of year.

      In undergrad, I switched into CS from a much more gender-balanced major (music), and throughout undergrad and grad school, the gender balance has been terrible, but I’ve never seen it as personally threatening. I get irritated by lack of diversity in my surroundings, but truth be told, I notice lack of gender diversity way less often than I notice lack of diversity of experience and opinion. (Gender actually isn’t something I necessarily immediately notice about a person.) Of course, a boost in gender diversity might help out those other axes of diversity, too.

    3. Kim Curry

      Did you, grown-up women of the STEM fields, ever come close to “washing out” and switching to something less male-dominated? Does it ever get better for women in STEM, anywhere? Did you learn to “deal with it”? How? Are there grown-up women here who did leave STEM fields and see their lives and stress levels improve as a result?

      Both. It gets better, and it gets worse, and sometimes it gets better again.

      My freshman year C programming course, there were three female students in my lab section, and a female graduate assistant. Two of them sat together, I sat on my own… until it came time to do our semester project. We were supposed to work in groups of three… and I joined them to make our own team. In this situation, I found working in an all-woman group supportive, and helped me/us to have confidence that we were doing what we needed to do.

      I have been in other engineering courses with male partners, where the male(s) pretty well took over.

      When I graduated and entered the workforce, the initial success of getting into the field I’d been dreaming of for a very long time carried me quite a ways. Then it started getting harder again… and then, with a female friend, we found the Society of Women Engineers and started getting involved. Then it got better again.

      Did I ever come close to washing out of STEM? I don’t think I did. But depending on the statistics, and the questions that are asked, some statistics would say that I did. My most recent degree, my graduate-level degree, is in Humanities. I earned it while continuing to work as an engineer.

      I did come close to washing out of certain courses. There were a few that I Withdrew from early in the semester. I remember a Communications lab, using RF cables and such, that I really struggled with. After bombing the first lab practical, I dropped it.

      There were a few courses I *really* struggled with, where the byword was “D is for Diploma.”

      I even failed one engineering course that was not required for my major, but taken due to personal interest. I knew that was a risk, going into it. It’s now offered distance learning, and I’ve been thinking about trying again some semester.

      And then there were other, different engineering courses that made my entire semester/year. One was a robotics lab, that I talked the professor into offering my final senior year. I was so thrilled to see the robot move like I’d programmed it to do, I’d run down the hall to get one of my friends and show him how it WORKED :)

      Another thing that I did, as an undergrad, was continue to take the humanities courses that interested me. I picked up three, non-STEM, minors. We may be geeks, but we can be well-rounded ones :)

      When my son was born, and after I moved / changed positions in the company, I went through a couple of years of soul-searching. I burned out on engineering for a while, but I HAD to keep doing it to support my family. With time, and going to the SWE National Conference, I’ve been finding my confidence again.

      I’ve read about marriage that it means falling in love over and over again, always with the same person. STEM can be like that too. Sometimes you love it, sometimes you get tired of it… but you give it a month, or a year, or a week, and it gets better for a while.

      Find your tribe, is the best advice I have for you. Professional organizations can be wonderful for that. Whether you go for one that suits your need for community as a minority (SWE, NSBE, SHPE, etc.), or matches your interests (AIAA, Engineers Without Borders, IEEE, etc.), a community of support will help through the rough patches.

  2. Leigh Honeywell

    I nearly washed out a couple of times, first in dealing with some personal stuff while struggling with second-year physics. I ended up taking some time away from academia, discovering the joy of being really competent at working, and slowly returning to finish a double major in CS and Equity Studies. Reading the book “Unlocking the Clubhouse” was a game-changer for me – I realized that the experiences of discouragement and impostor syndrome and the so-called “blocker course” to which they refer were common ones, not just my personal failings. After 9 years of mostly-part-time study, I’m graduating in the spring with an Honours BSc.

    To answer the commenter above’s question… I think it does get better in small ways, and sometimes in big ways. You get one classmate to stop using “gay” as an insult. You meet an ally or two, or befriend a woman who’s just starting first year CS and get to be a mentor. You connect with an amazing community online. Much of the crappy stuff persists, but knowing you’re not alone in it, having someone to vent to about it, and being able to make small changes… that makes following your dreams in STEM possible and still worthwhile, I think.

    TL;DR: Feminism and taking some time off to work left me feeling more confident and committed to studying and working in STEM than ever.

  3. A. L.

    thank you for this post and the link to Laurien !
    gosh, now I know what’s IT about (have only been exposed to that for +40 yrs) and IT has a name ;-)

    usually I don’t comment, just stopping by on a regular basis to read and find food for my thoughts.
    and sorry neither a) nor b) = I rely on self-improvement, vastly so ever since the web

    cheers from Germany

  4. Tia

    My undergraduate degree is in Mechanical Engineering and my masters degree is in Bioengineering, although now I am a refugee from the sciences. Luckily at my undergrad, the engineering class was large, the courses were pretty easily graded, and at least 30% of the class was female. Impostor syndrome didn’t kick in until grad school, where I was more middle of the pack ability-wise and had less background (biology-based stuff). In graduate school more than half the students were women.
    At that point the deer-in-headlights reaction kicked in, in addition to a nasty case of “you’re not good enough.” What I didn’t realize until the end of my miserable experience is that most other people were doing better because they were working way harder and not letting questions of self worth eat into their concentration. Most of science is about problem solving without letting fear or frustration get in the way. It takes time, and it takes being wrong a lot without feeling bad.
    If you don’t want to do CS because you’re not enjoying it and have a legitimate plan for something better, that’s one thing. But don’t quit because it feels hard and you’re scared you are not good enough. It does get better–especially if you make sure you have supportive female friends who are outside the male-heavy hothouse of your major. And take extra non-science classes–I think what enabled me to get through undergrad so easily is that I had a dual liberal arts major that provided me classmates with normal social skills and an outlet from the “banging your head against a problem for hours” style of learning.
    I sometimes regret leaving the field; engineering fields pay better, offer insurance, and are surprisingly good about work-life balance. Also, I miss using my head that way. Those analytical skills get rusty if you don’t use them. Plus, it really bugs me when I see, in my tech-heavy group of male friends, that every single woman working at their companies is in human resources or marketing or accounting; by leaving science I feel I’m contributing to that awful trend now.

  5. Restructure!

    I remember when I was getting good grades in some CS courses, I was suspicious that there was some kind of gender “affirmative action”, but then I remembered that assignments were graded by the computer and my test answers matched the posted answers.

    When men and/or white people complain, usually without any basis, that there is a lower standard for women and/or racial minorities, it’s not like we don’t hear or internalize this and then doubt our ability despite evidence of success. I think it’s important to be transparent about the grading criteria and make sure that they are objective and explicit, or else people who are not “supposed” to do well in $subject may attribute their success to something other than themselves. (And some people who expect themselves to do better than people who are not “supposed” to do well may think the system is rigged, and communicate this to them nonverbally through body language, etc.)

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