Being an Imposter Woman in Tech
When people talk about women in technical fields, we’re often represented as strong women who have beaten the odds. I see us as people who have stood up against stereotypes and often overcome blatant discrimination. We are these strong beacons of hope. Yet at the same time, statistics show that we fail to negotiate for our salaries, we struggle with imposter syndrome and we have to fight extra hard not to be seen as bossy or abrasive. I would love to think that I live up to this image of being a strong woman who can weather societal pressure, but the truth is that I took the easy path. Not only did I take the easy path but I don’t identify with almost any of those other characteristics that are true for so many women in our field. In fact, I don’t feel like an imposter as a person in tech, instead I feel like an imposter in the women in tech community.
I was lucky growing up. My parents instilled in me the belief that I could do anything and they protected me enough from TV and general societal pressures for me to have no doubt that I could be anything I wanted. I was first introduced to programming by a female computer teacher at my elementary school. She primarily taught us typing and that sort of thing, but she also taught us some simple Logo in 5th or 6th grade. Around that time, I also participated in a bridge building contest put on by the society of women engineers (SWE) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I loved the experience. At that moment, I wanted to grow up to be a civil engineer. My uncle later talked me out of civil engineering specifically, but that was still the pivotal moment when I knew I wanted to be an engineer. In high school, another female math teacher taught us to program our calculators, which I thought was one of the coolest things ever. Finally, my senior year of high school, I took AP Computer Science. The gender ratio wasn’t great, I think there were about 7 girls in a class of 30, but our teacher was a woman. Also, unlike so many stories I’ve heard, I can’t remember anyone in the class having any prior programming experience beyond what I had had and I quickly moved to the front of the class. By the time I made it to college, I knew that I enjoyed programming and was pretty good at it. In college, I actually struggled in the intro class and I can see why some people might feel like many others were leagues ahead of them. At the same time though, I held onto my success in high school and I knew that the material in the college class had less overlap than might be expected, so I fully expected to be able to do better later. That expectation was largely true, and while I was never at the top of my class, I did well enough that I never questioned if I belonged there. Also, despite the clearly out of whack gender ratio in our CS department, I largely hung out with people in other majors and usually did my homework on my own, so I rarely noticed. I graduated, got a job at Microsoft, later at a startup and then at Box. I never noticed any blatant discrimination at any of these places.
All of this isn’t to say that I’ve gotten off completely unscathed. I had one recitation in college where I was the only woman in that particular recitation. I stopped going because I felt like such an odd woman out. I skipped a lot of recitations in general, so I’m not going to try to pretend this was hugely detrimental to me, but it certainly didn’t help. I’ve found myself in situations where people have assumed that my husband is much more technically competent than I am despite the fact that he doesn’t have a degree in CS. I have often felt that I’ve had to prove myself to various people or, in a few cases, like someone didn’t really respect my abilities initially. I often wonder in many of these cases, did I have to work to prove myself because that’s just how that person operates? Or was it because I was a woman? Or maybe it was something else about how I handle myself? If it was something else about how I handle myself, do I do that because I’ve been socially conditioned to act that way because I’m a woman? Or is it totally unrelated?
Even with the things that I have seen, I rarely question if I belong where I am. I’ve never been told that I’m too abrasive or bossy. I’ve never been told that the only reason I’m doing as well as I am in a class is because I’m flirting with the TA (my friend was told this). I’ve been promoted at around the same rate or faster than many of my peers. One of the only times I feel like an imposter is when I’m in a room of women where everyone is talking about feeling like an imposter in the tech space. That’s not me.
I sometimes secretly wish that I had had a more difficult time so that I could have an inspiring story to share about how if I could overcome these hurdles, so could others. Then again, if I had actually had more hurdles, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today. Instead of wishing that I had had a harder time, I should be celebrating and thanking all of the amazing people that came together to make my path easy. Inspirational people are not only the people who overcome hardship, but also those who lessen it for others. Going to a public high school that offered AP Computer Science and had a female computer science teacher is almost unheard of, but it’s encouraging to know that they do exist and that they’re out there working hard and making a difference. Many groups like SWE do outreach to try to encourage more girls to get excited about engineering, so I should be proud to be the product of one of those efforts. I’m evidence that those outreach efforts make a difference and are worth the hard work of the individuals. Instead of wishing that I had a harder time, I should be proud of all of the positive efforts that so many people made for me that got me to where I am today.
I may be a slightly out of the ordinary woman it tech, but being okay with being out of the ordinary is at the heart of what women in tech everywhere are fighting for. I’m different. And that’s okay, because it’s our differences that make us stronger.
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