How The Rhetoric of Imposter Syndrome Is Used to Gaslight Women in Tech

The overwhelming focus on imposter syndrome doesn’t provide a space to process the power dynamics affecting you; you get gaslighted into thinking it’s *you* causing all the problems.

by Alexis Hancock on April 25th, 2016

A few weeks ago, I attended an event in my borough of the Bronx featuring a panel of brilliant women in technology. They explained how they created their careers, applications, start ups, and websites. I was pleased that it was mainly a panel of women of color, from all different walks of life.  

At one point, an audience member asked the panelists how they persevere through their struggles as women in tech. Their advice: don’t let naysayers keep you from reaching your goals and dreams, ignore the haters and stay focused on personal motivation, not external forces. I had a deep visceral reaction in that moment: I’m happy that I, too, have persevered as a Black woman in tech… but it came with a price. I wondered how many more of us could have been sitting on that panel, if there weren’t so many standing in our way.

Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is when you can’t internalize your own accomplishments, despite being high achieving. It is cited as one of the biggest problems facing women in tech, the biggest obstacle to their success.

I believed in the rhetoric. I thought the process of self-acceptance would mean professional acceptance by my peers. I thought I would stop experiencing negative actions in tech once I could just believe in my worth, and show it to others. I thought that if I worked hard enough and completed enough projects, I would eventually reach a point where I didn’t feel like a fraud. And to cope with the racist and sexist comments along the way, I just focused on reaching that point of power, when my accomplishments would shine brightly.

But I’d fallen into a trap. As Cate Huston writes:

“What we call imposter syndrome often reflects the reality of an environment that tells marginalized groups that we shouldn’t be confident, that our skills aren’t enough, that we won’t succeed—and when we do, our accomplishments won’t even be attributed to us. Yet imposter syndrome is treated as a personal problem to be overcome, a distortion in processing rather than a realistic reflection of the hostility, discrimination, and stereotyping that pervades tech culture.”

For me, the myth of meritocracy, and the rhetoric of imposter syndrome, became a deflection for the environmental issues going on around me. I thought it was my job to fix my “imposter syndrome,” but my environment was what triggered that state of mind: Constant, blatantly paternal and dismissive responses to my technical suggestions. Stress from microaggressions. Putting in more and more work and hours as the months passed… but that work never translated to a higher status or professional elevation.

Hands on a keyboard.

Photo CC-BY WOCinTech Chat.

I began to believe that since I still wasn’t trusted to take on bigger projects, I was somehow still in need of improvement in areas I excelled in. Being constantly dismissed created a cognitive block that made me hesitant on every decision I made in my code. It whittled away at my confidence to make bold decisions that could make me stand out. After so long of immediate interrogation and dismissal, I now presented my thoughts as meek suggestions. My work suffered as a result. I was outputting code with no particular imprint of my own for almost 2 years.

The stress added up. Self-care is not looked upon highly as a web developer. It’s a badge of honor to stay up doing midnight releases and drink absurd amounts of coffee. Portraying the image of the burdened genius is way more accepted than admitting that you are burnt out from settling bugs all day and that you don’t want to look at code when you get home. With the cloud of imposter syndrome hovering over me, I convinced myself that I did not work hard enough to deserve a moment to relax. Instead of putting the laptop down, I was focused on learning everything I could in my free time. I began to suffer from more frequent anxiety attacks, weight gain, and an overall clouded state of mind. Any new coworker interactions suffered due to my anxiety. Outside of the job, I was often too exhausted to go to other tech events I really wanted to indulge in.

I became consumed with proving myself. Still, all the advice I received came in the form of a pep talk to “believe in myself” again. This common response to the struggles of women in tech reinforces the idea that imposter syndrome is the ONLY lens to view and cope… but the truth is, our negative experiences in tech are usually outside of our control. The overwhelming focus on imposter syndrome doesn’t provide a space to process the power dynamics affecting you; you get gaslighted into thinking it’s you causing all the problems.

Beyond Imposter Syndrome

A shattered lens.

Photo CC-BY Holly Zade.

The moment came when my imposter syndrome lens started to shatter. A white man was hired at my job. He was allegedly mid level, and paid more than me. But I soon discovered he barely had a grip on basic programming. Despite this, he lasted a staggering 6 months on my team. On my end, a small delay in projects warranted condescending comments about my abilities; he was granted a quiet stay and leave free of public humiliation. It was a wake-up call. No longer could I say: “I should use this moment to work harder”. I was already doing that, and there was no amount of networking, coding, or personal development I could do to mitigate the obvious racism and sexism applied to me. This was not a matter of believing in myself, but external people in power choosing not to believe in my work.

The final straw was when I brought up an idea for a better code architecture to my team lead. He acknowledged the idea briefly, but told me that wasn’t “the direction” he wanted to go. Yet a few months later, he reiterated MY IDEA back to me… as his own invention. He said that I should just seamlessly slide the work I had already done into his Jira ticket… as a comment, not as an actual body of work that had been developed and lead by me. He wanted me to merge all my work, all my ideas, into his work, to be presented as his without any recognition going to me.

I realized then that I wasn’t an imposter: I was advocating for my work and it ended up being dismissed, derailed, exploited and even stolen, over and over again. It wasn’t until I announced my leave that I was finally told my work was of value, that I was considered highly competent, and my salary could “possibly” be increased. I was finally being acknowledged, but by then my lens of imposter syndrome was fully shattered. It was no longer the carrot in front of me, promising that my quality of work would be acknowledged, if only I believed in myself. I found a more sound hope in not blaming myself anymore.

Strong Black Women and Labor

Women of color in tech sitting around a conference table, talking, laughing and working on computers.

Photo CC-BY WOCinTech Chat.

It’s particularly important to talk about what the rhetoric of imposter syndrome means for Black women in tech. Being a “strong Black woman” is an easy role to fall into because that’s when we are seen as most useful. In technology, our struggle to be not only seen but valued is often used to get us to work on diversity initiatives for free. We are told to view all the negative events in our path as a source of “strength,” when they’re actually taking our strength away. In my own experiences, there have been a flood of people who knew my situation, knew I wasn’t valued in the industry, and tried to take advantage of that for free work on their websites, businesses and apps. They concluded that since I am a Black woman, I should be happy to help for free: after all, it’s up to me to use my “power” to show other Black girls that it is possible for them (…to be used, I guess). I doubt my panic attacks in September and December last year are beacons of hope for these little girls.

Being a smart Black woman and having to simply prove you have basic competence is not growth; it’s living in a suspended state. It’s having to explain in detail your technical training rather than expanding on your expertise. It’s virtually no one simply believing me the way they do my non-Black or non-woman counterparts. It feels like having to repeatedly convince the world to let me get to that first stair, much less get on the staircase. No amount of believing in myself can fix that.

Marginalized workers experiencing imposter syndrome should be seen as an indictment on the forces that got them to that point, NOT something that’s our fault, or our responsibility to fix. Asking us continually to solve the problems other caused erases what’s actually occurring. Making it seem like our fault just gaslights away the pain.

Real sources of strength for me are being paid, recognizing the oppression I face, fighting for my right to put my labor where I see fit, and connecting with people like me in this field to build on projects that benefit us. On the path to fixing tech culture, we must process microaggressions, low pay, and other tactics as what they are: systemic oppression.

I recognize my environment as the imposter, and it’s no longer up to me to fix its sickness.