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WWCode Career Nav #13: Conflict Fluency Skills to Create Inclusive Workplaces


Noelle Notermann, Senior Engineer at Target, shares her knowledge of what is known as Imposter Syndrome. She discusses the origins of imposter “phenomenon”, what it really means to women working today, and how redefining the perceptions of what tech looks like could allow women to feel more authentic working in the industry.
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Hello, women who code. I'm noelle notreman. My past life included being a professional musician, a teacher, working in community and student leadership development, and now I'm in Tech. I'm a proud boot camp grad who started out as a full stack developer and currently work as a DevOps engineer. But my real passion is to work toward increasing equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging in the Tech community and in the industry overall. Two key barriers that I see standing in the way of some possible growth toward deib are effective communication and conflict fluency. But also impostor syndrome. Yes, the dreaded impostor syndrome. So what is Impostor syndrome? Really? Most of us have heard about it, and I'm guessing that many of us have felt like we have it, or maybe we used to have it, or we know someone who says that they have it. We're going to talk about the history and background of Impostor Syndrome and what it means as a woman in Tech. And spoiler alert, we are going to push back on this concept of Imposter Syndrome, especially for women identifying folks and for other underrepresented and under supported groups in Tech. So let's jump in. So let's start with a definition of Imposter Syndrome. Now, first of all, it's not called Imposter Syndrome. The actual term that was used in the original research done in the 1970s by two researchers in the United States was called imposter phenomenon. And since words matter, let's talk a little bit about these words. The word phenomenon to me sounds kind of light, interesting, unique, exceptional, fleeting. It's a very different word and a different feeling than syndrome syndrome, which sounds somewhat terrifying. It's something that impacts major and multiple life aspects, and it's usually attached to medical disorders or things like that. So first thing to think about is that Imposter Syndrome was actually not real because the original term was imposter phenomenon. And it was somewhere in sort of the popular writings and popular culture around this that it became Imposter Syndrome. You might hear me use both as we talk, but just keep in mind that originally it was impostor phenomenon, and that's a different feeling. So what is impostor phenomenon? Well, to get to the definition of what that is, it involves sort of a misperception of self. So regardless of your accomplishments, your education, your achievements, regardless of all of that, you still might feel self doubt. You might push harder and harder and harder, but never make any real progress because you're the one that keeps moving the goalposts ahead. The other aspect of imposter phenomenon, as it was originally defined, is fear and guilt. Fear of being found out as a fraud, fear of failing and fear of succeeding. So you kind of lose either way and feeling guilt even when you do succeed. But there's this third aspect of the definition that's really what got me interested in the first place, and that is imposter phenomenon is studied environmentally meaning that it's studied as a reaction to particular events or things that happen. And this started to make me interested in the origin of these feelings that were coming up, if they were coming from the environment, maybe there's something about the environment that's causing these feelings to happen. And we'll talk a little bit more about that in a few minutes. The other thing about imposter phenomenon is that it is not a mental disorder. It is not a formal diagnosis, so it's not recognized in the DSM or the ICD, the International Classification of Diseases. And here where I am in the United States with the health insurance model that we have, this means that if someone feels like they have imposter syndrome, there actually isn't any help available for them under insurance, under medical insurance or employer insurance. It also means that there aren't any reasonable accommodations under the Ada, the Americans with Disability Act. That's different from other things that are recognized, like anxiety or low selfesteem or depression, but impostor syndrome is not included in that. So if you feel like you have impostor syndrome and you feel like it's negatively impacting you and you live and work in the United States, then the only thing that you can do is pay a lot of money for some selfhelp books or pay for a full day workshop on how to overcome imposter syndrome or maybe watch a YouTube video with a ton of affiliate links. In other words, you have to spend your money to try to figure this out. And that makes me a little bit suspicious of it in the first place, which is one of the reasons that I wanted to start to push back on this idea. The last aspect of environmental with impostor phenomenon is that it only appears in one area of life. That could be the workplace, or that could be in an academic setting or in relationships, but it really is defined as only appearing in one area. So that means that if you are out and about and you're shopping for something, whether it's groceries or new clothes, you feel totally fine. You can pick what you need, you feel like a success. You're not worried about failure at the grocery store, but then maybe when you go to work, all of a sudden you do feel like a failure or like a fraud. And again, that made me very curious why? Why would that be? So the other half of this language we talked about syndrome versus phenomenon, the other aspect is this word imposter. And I have a real problem with this word, imposter, right? So an imposter is someone who is pretending to be someone else, pretending to look the way someone else looks, act or talk or even think like someone else. And inherently, if we're talking about women engineers or women identifying engineers, that means that we have an image in our mind or that the tech industry has an image in their mind of what an ideal engineer should look like or talk like or act, and that we don't match that right. And so for myself in this journey, I'll share that when I first examined this idea, what is my idea of a perfect engineer? What's? In my mind, it was a white, cisgendered male, heterosexual, middle aged, with a beard, who rode a bicycle, and not to pick on that group that happened to actually be my older brother. And that was just my idea. And the reality is that no matter how hard I work, no matter how many skills I gain, I will never be that, because I don't have those identities. So I would always feel like an imposter. So I needed to correct the image that I had in my mind of what an ideal engineer should look like. And I would say even more that it's really important that your ideal engineer be you. It can be a future you. It can be you with that new certification. It can be you with some additional skills, but it really, really needs to be you. If it's not you, then you're almost guaranteed to feel like an imposter. You're almost guaranteed to fail. So there is no singular way of being an engineer. I look like an engineer. You look like an engineer. I act like one, you act like one. There is no singular way of being. So in that same vein, when we're looking at the fact that impostor phenomenon or imposter syndrome is really environmental, could part of the issue be the environment, be the systems and structures that are implicitly or sometimes explicitly maintained by those who are in them or by those who benefit most from them? So some of this connects with some excellent, excellent work in Diversity, Equity, and inclusion done by scholars like Ruchika Tolchian and Jodie Anne Bureau. Together. They wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review called stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome. This article came out a little bit over a year ago, and actually they both have books out this year if you're interested in reading more in the Diversity, Equity, and inclusion space. But their scholarship about imposter syndrome was really impactful for me, and I want to read a quote from that article. Again. This is from the Harvard Business Review. The article was called stop telling Women they have Impostor Syndrome. And here's the quote the impact of systemic racism, classism xenophobia, and other biases was categorically absent when the concept of impostor syndrome was developed. Many groups were excluded from the study, namely, women of color and people of various income levels, genders and professional backgrounds. Impostor syndrome puts the blame on individuals without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests. Impostor syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work. And for me, that article really aligned with some of what I had been feeling personally about imposter syndrome and how it was something that I had heard about. I had heard about it in boot camp and I had sort of been warned about it. There's this syndrome, this scary thing, and you might catch it at any minute. Not to mock it, I don't mean to mock it, but I really didn't know anything about it until someone told me something about it. And then I sort of took that information and lined it up with some of my feelings and I said, oh, maybe I do have this thing. But as I learned more about it, I became more and more curious. And again, like I said, a little bit suspicious about its origin and really what it could mean for women in tech in particular. So I just want to reiterate that my goal in pushing back on imposter syndrome and pushing back on imposter phenomenon is not to tell anyone, not to tell you that you don't have it, or not to tell you that you do have it. You should decide for yourself how you feel and what you want to do about it. But I do think it's important to plant this seed that it might be possible that imposter syndrome or imposter phenomenon is less within a person, right? It's not something that just magically comes out of us, but actually more because of these systems and structures and dynamics of best practices. I'm doing air quotes here, or this is how we've always done it that really just weren't thoughtfully designed in the first place or perhaps not revisited and adapted for new people joining the industry. Most companies will say right away that they want to hire and have diverse high performing teams. But bringing those new, diverse individuals onto a team without adjusting the existing culture and without adjusting the workplace at all really is a recipe for people not feeling like they belong, for people not feeling welcome, and also a recipe for people leaving for that matter, an issue with retention. And of course it could lead to feelings of imposter syndrome. So at some point in another talk here, I would like to get to what we can do about it. But really the goal here is to introduce this idea that imposter syndrome really isn't a syndrome at all. It is in fact a phenomenon, which is again a much easier thing, I think, to feel. And also that we can and should work on the environment, in tech, in the industry, so that people aren't set up to have these feelings or aren't really spoonfed these feelings. There's this idea of telling someone about something, introducing it to them, and then all of a sudden they start to feel like that's the truth for them. But if they hadn't had that terminology in the first place, they would not have ever experienced those feelings. So I would say if you're working with colleagues in tech, especially women identifying or other underrepresented, under supported groups. Can you hear someone talking about Imposter Syndrome? Send them this way. Send them to the podcast or share what you've learned here. Did you know that Imposter Syndrome is really actually imposter phenomenon? Did you know that the research is over 40 years old right now? And that the research was done with a very small group of highly educated white women, specifically those who had graduated with an MBA and then were in their post MBA career? And so it really was not covering all of us, all of us in our various backgrounds and experiences. And so maybe that terminology and maybe that research wasn't really the best fit for those of us here today. And if we're calling experiences in the workplace that are negative or even microaggressions and we're calling them Imposter Syndrome instead, then we're really missing out on a bigger problem and something else that we need to be dealing with in the workplace. So thanks for listening, and I hope to talk more again in the future about what we should do about it. But for now, just an introduction to the history of Imposter Syndrome so that you can understand what Impostor Syndrome is really, and hopefully start to question it yourself. You.