Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Eight little words inculcate imposter syndrome

The great Maria Klawe, ACM Fellow, AAAS Fellow, president of Harvey Mudd, wrote a surprisingly humbling and honest article in Slate on imposter syndrome.

In some ways, this type of article is good for young women in the field, because they figure if superstars like her can feel it, they can feel it too. i.e., "It's normal to feel this way."

Except, it's not normal to feel this way.

The reason we feel like we don't belong / aren't good enough, is because we've been encultured to believe this since Day 1. The message from the media is passive pink, and rarely are young women cast in roles of lead scientist in film and television. The whiz computer genius in a show usually looks like this:

"That doesn't look like me. Also, he seems really unhappy. I don't belong in computer science."

Readers protest, "But it's just TV! It doesn't matter!"

But it does. This is how kids choose careers. As much as we'd like to think that our annual science outreach visit to our children's classrooms hugely influences students' future career learnings, we're talking marbles vs. Large Hadron Collider. Hollywood is it.

So for the lucky few who manage to beat the cultural odds and enter our field anyway, they have one more major hurdle.

It's not the intellectual requirements of the job.
It's not work-life balance.
And it's certainly not babies!

Nope. It is eight little words that skewer you with a knife. Eight little words that knock you down in one fell swoop.

Eight little words that men never hear.

"You only got here because you're a woman".

Have you ever said this to someone? Have you ever thought this and not said it?

This is an awful, awful thing to say. Why? Because underlying it is the assumption that only men can do computer science. Why on earth would you think that?

I first heard these words as an undergraduate, from someone I thought was a close friend. I felt sick to my stomach. I never felt imposter syndrome before that point. I loved technology, I was good at understanding how it worked, and how to make it do the things I wanted it to do. Up until that point, I assumed my strong technical abilities and grades was why I had been admitted into the program. Surely not my gender!

After I felt sick, I felt mad. Really mad! Who was this joker to tell me I didn't belong here? I'll show him.

Now, I'm fortunate, because I face adversity with stubbornness. It's just my nature. But most people are not like this. They get beaten down with a stick enough times, and they head for the hills. I can completely understand that, I've had my moments.

Here's the thing. Every time you say or even think these eight words, you're beating someone with a stick. You might think it's an innocuous statement, but really what you're saying is, "Go home dumb little girl."

Don't be a boorish bear.