By now, few women are a stranger to the term ‘imposter syndrome.’ Essentially, it describes feelings of being unqualified in a role or undeserving of achievements. This phenomenon was coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 and has since become a relevant topic of discussion, especially among high-achieving women. Within The Women’s Network, imposter syndrome is frequently discussed among members in workshops. Many members have shared that they have experienced the effects of imposter syndrome, while others have offered up suggestions on how to overcome it.
In Silicon Valley, the global center of big tech located in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are countless reports of women who have dealt with imposter syndrome or left the tech industry because of detrimental company cultures. In fact, a recent study shows that the gender gap in the tech industry is worse today than it was in 1984. About half of women leave their careers in tech by the age of 35. For women of color in the study, only 8% said they believed they could continue to thrive in the tech industry.
Today, there is much emphasis placed on getting young women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers. However, if we do not first resolve the problems that are causing women who are already in the tech industry to leave, how can we promise a bright future to young girls?
We can observe imposter syndrome in the tech industry from a different perspective in order to diagnose the roots of these issues. Too often, imposter syndrome is presented as a personal problem, something a woman must overcome herself in order to succeed by society’s standards. It has become almost a default to present solutions to imposter syndrome such as writing affirmations or reading self-help books. While these are by no means bad practices, we must step back and ask ourselves what imposter syndrome says beyond the individual.
Presenting imposter syndrome as an individual issue ignores the impact of “systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases” on company cultures in Silicon Valley. Looking at why women are so frequently feeling inadequate or undeserving of their accomplishments, it becomes clear that there are other structural factors at play.
One of the differences between being a white man in the tech industry and a woman of color is that white men typically have role models that look and act like them to look up to. It is easier to overcome self-doubt when you see others similar to you succeeding. Another difference comes from the idea of what confidence should be; it’s usually associated with public speaking ability, strong opinions, and expansive networks. Confidence is then equated to competence, which is not always the case. And, when marginalized employees do fit this model of confidence, they are not met with the same positive feedback that men usually experience. A company culture such as this is simply not sustainable for women of all backgrounds, through no fault of their own.
Allocating resources to programs elevating women, hiring employees from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds, and addressing existing concerns within tech companies are all ways to create an environment that uplifts and promotes the success of women. We need to reassure women that feeling out of place and unqualified is valid, without it being a significant barrier to their work. Writing off these issues as strictly imposter syndrome conveniently fails to recognize what needs to improve in the company environment.
Reframing the imposter syndrome issue in Silicon Valley as one that requires change be made within company structures, and not only within the individual, is essential to build a better future for women in tech.