Why Women Programmers Feel Like Imposters

July 9, 2014

10:30 am

Despite massive amounts of evidence to the contrary, Alicia Liu never believed she was a good programmer.

“Within a field like computing where women are vastly underrepresented, it is especially likely for someone in the minority to feel like she got in by some fluke and doesn’t truly belong there,” Liu writes in a post on Medium

In her head, all her accomplishments – building websites at 15, going to the University of Waterloo, interning at Amazon – became the result of luck. 

“On the inside, a different narrative played out. I got into university due to affirmative action. I had a good GPA because we didn’t have ‘weeder’ classes and I didn’t take the really hardcore CS courses. I got my job because my interview only covered things I knew. I got excellent performance evaluations because I was given manageable assignments. I did well in school and work projects because friends who were good programmers helped me out,” she writes.

The result wasn’t just insecurity, the constant fear that she would come across some insurmountable task or bug. It also changed her behavior. At her first startup, she resigned herself to a role doing marketing and some light front-end development. 

“Impostor Syndrome instilled in me a deep fear of failing. I was afraid to speak up or ask questions for fear of saying something stupid, and people would find out I didn’t really know my stuff. The stakes were even higher because as the only female engineer on nearly every team I’ve been on, I felt saying something stupid would be representative of my gender. I quietly avoided doing things I didn’t think I’d be good at, even though the only way to get better is to do them. I had put things I could do and things I wasn’t good at into separate mental buckets, and saw these artificial groupings as static and impermeable. That was the biggest loss for me, not learning and doing more things because I was afraid I couldn’t,” she writes. 

But these days, as a senior software engineer at Lift, Liu finally believes she’s a good programmer. She realized that programming – with neverending new things to learn and constant failure – is almost designed to make you feel inadequate. Instead, she just has to let her track record speak for itself. 

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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