I recently accepted a new job at an innovative company with coworkers who share my passion for data science. Every day, I have the chance to work closely with many analysts, a data scientist and a data visualisation specialist to help clients understand the qualitative implications behind their data and act on it, which is what I love to do the most. I build dashboards, I create meaningful visualisations and teach clients how to interact with the various BI tools we build for them. It really is the perfect role for me! Therefore, I was thrilled to start on my first day, until the moment I sat down at my new desk. That’s when the little voice in my head started screaming: “What have you done? Who are you kidding? You don’t deserve this role. You are not good enough’’. As I came to learn a while ago, this feeling is called imposter syndrome.
But, What is Impostor Syndrome Anyway?
Imposter syndrome is generally described as a sense of doubt over your own competence. Furthermore, it’s a fear of not deserving recognition for your accomplishments. You might feel like a fraud, constantly afraid that someone will discover it and then expose you. Even if it is not recognized as a mental disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the reference guide on mental health issues in the United States, it can definitely be overwhelming and difficult to cope with. If you have been feeling this way, you are not alone. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience impostor syndrome at least once in their life.
Knowing that statistic, I felt somewhat reassured not to be the only one with these feelings. But still, something was bothering me. I’ve noticed that this phenomenon is really common amongst women in tech. Why does it feel like my girlfriends in STEM have experienced imposter syndrome so often while our male counterparts seemed so confident? According to research, women and men are touched equally with imposter syndrome. So why does it feel like women in tech have so much more of a hard time finding their place? What’s causing this syndrome in the first place?
There are many possible explanations, as experts have not pinpointed the true cause. Some believe that it has to do with early childhood memories. Others believe that those prone to anxiety are more likely to experience impostor syndrome. According to Dr. Tara Swart, imposter syndrome is more prevalent in less inclusive environments. In other words, being in a hostile environment, where the sense of belonging is difficult to attain could trigger this feeling.
How does imposter syndrome present itself in STEM-focused women?
In STEM, women are still underrepresented, especially in management positions. Moreover, data science can be way more demanding and technical compared to other careers. There is always something more to learn, which makes it interesting. It can, however, also make you second guess your capabilities. Our underrepresentation within the industry no doubt triggers loneliness. More often than not, I’ve been the only woman in the room at meetings and have experienced my fair share of unfriendly behaviors and patronizing remarks. These remarks can be subtle, like being asked to take notes at meeting more often than my male colleagues. Sometimes it is more overt, like enduring some not-so-subtle macho remarks about your capabilities or what type of role you are meant to occupy. Above all, what hurts the most is to have your ability second-guessed for the sole fact of being a women. Earlier in my career, I remember talking to a men about various programming languages when he stopped me, mid-sentence, to ask if my boyfriend was a programmer, because ‘’I knew a lot of stuff about programming’’. As if he could not imagine I was both a women and a programmer. Occurrences like this highlight how the tech industry is still very much characterized by its “bro culture.”
How can we overcome this feeling?
Many things can be done to help overcome the imposter syndrome. First, connect! Given that an overall lack of belonging probably plays a role in triggering the imposter syndrome, it is crucial to surround yourself with friends and professionals who understand. Amazing data science communities exist all over the world where women and everyone alike can share passions and build a sense of belonging. I for example, benefited significantly from the creation of the Montreal chapter of the Data Viz Jam Sessions – a Meetup where data-viz enthusiasts can connect, share and exchange about their projects – was a real break-through. Having this community where we can talk about our passion, but also about our struggles and our bad days helped me realise that I am not the only one having doubts and that I do contribute to this profession in my own valuable ways.
Don’t worry if hosting these type of event are not for you. Most chances are some groups of such enthusiasts already exist in your city. Reach out to your local associations or look up some Meetups in your area. There is surely a group that could both benefit from and enrich your love for data!
Moreover, many experts recommend creating a safe space with others to talk about imposter syndrome and share personal experiences involving the feeling along with tips on how to overcome it. Personally, surrounding myself with people who share my passion for data science was key to building confidence in my abilities. From the accumulation of small encounters and numerous discussions, I discovered that I’m not the only one experiencing imposter syndrome. Most of us have experienced it and some just kept a more stoic facade. This makes it hard on everyone. First, it is difficult for someone to repress their feeling of self-doubt. Most of all, it is hard for the colleagues and aspiring data scientist who look up to those persons as inspiration. I believe it re-enforces the feeling of not being good enough if all your role models never talk about their tougher moments. Above all, I think showing our vulnerabilities is beneficial for creating deeper connections between people, especially when it involves asking for help when we need it.
Finally, I accepted that, no matter what, this feeling will keep creeping on from time to time, but I don’t let that feeling overwhelm me as I used to. I cannot get rid of imposter syndrome altogether, but I try to approach these moments with a positive mindset and remind myself constantly that I am good enough and solid in what I know.