The fall of my junior year, Microsoft hosted a recruiting event on my university’s campus. Hoping for an internship, I was excited to spend a day with potential employers and current employees — until I read the event description: an all-day StarCraft II tournament for “gamers of all levels” to win an Xbox One.
It was clear that I was not the target recruit for this event, but I went anyway, to meet people and try to network. When I arrived, I found a dark room of male students and young male software engineers staring at their computers in silence and shouting expletives. No matter how much I tried to make small talk and ask questions (the first being: “What is StarCraft?”), no one wanted to engage.
I didn’t belong, and I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to pretend that I liked StarCraft to be a software engineer. I nabbed some free food and went home deciding I wouldn’t fit at Microsoft. But in my mind, I was the problem: I was the impostor, while the guys in that dark room were the “true” software engineers.
In 1978, clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first put words to the experience of women who, despite extraordinary academic and professional accomplishments, thought they weren’t deserving of success: impostor syndrome. The phenomenon, which can affect anyone but appears to disproportionately affect high-achieving women and minorities, often creates a cycle of anxiety-induced over-preparation, followed by a denial of personal contribution. It attributes success to luck or unworthy praise and is distinct from low self-esteem. And the effect of phenomenon goes beyond the individual: One study showed that workers who report experiencing impostor syndrome are less likely to go beyond their job requirements (helping colleagues, attending meetings that aren’t mandatory), possibly due to fear of being exposed.
Plenty of extraordinarily successful women have experienced impostor syndrome (Maya Angelou, Kate Winslet, Tina Fey). Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg described her experience in college thusly: “Every time I took a test, I was sure that it had gone badly. Every time I didn’t embarrass myself — or even excelled — I believed that I had fooled everyone yet again. One day soon, the jig would be up.” I could relate.
Even though I graduated from a top school, won a prize for my undergraduate thesis and landed a job at Google as a software engineer, that feeling persisted. I tended to find “rational explanations” for my successes. That thesis award? I only got it because I had over-invested time in it, I reasoned. When a co-worker took me to coffee on my first week at Google, he told me how excited he was to start working with me. “You know, our director insisted on hiring you to join our team,” he said. “He told us to make room and you would be incredibly valuable.” Instead of being thrilled, I focused on how the expectations were high and I didn’t want to let people down. I was just someone who managed to sneak her way into a great job.
Not all of my worries were of my own making. Women in tech are an anomaly. The percentage of us in software engineering has steadily decreased over the past quarter-century, with these trends looking particularly bad for women of color. I’ve been lucky — I have my mother, a successful academic scientist, to look up to; my professors and teachers have always encouraged me; and Google has been nothing but welcoming, with executives like Jen Fitzpatrick making an effort to support women in the company. But despite being one of the lucky ones who does feel supported, I often look around and realize how alone I am. And occasionally, my experiences remind me that not everyone thinks STEM is for women.
I once interviewed at a tech giant where one of their executives had published a popular book about women in the workplace. It was a comically sexist meeting. Upon seeing that I founded a Zumba club as an undergrad, my interviewer pressed me on if I was sure that software engineering was the right field for me. Despite my previous internship experience at Google and a published article on machine learning research, he wanted me to “sell” him that I wanted to do computer science and not dance. I couldn’t imagine anyone asking a man with my experience if he was “sure” he didn’t want to join the MLB because he also played intramural baseball in college.
There were parts of me that felt guilty for feeling unsure of my own potential. How could I advocate for promoting women in tech if I couldn’t promote myself? Half of women in STEM fields leave within 12 years. I didn’t want to be one of them. I oscillated between shame and guilt.
It wasn’t until a chance encounter with a powerful woman with her own history of self-doubt that I began to see my story differently.
My best friend from childhood is a White House staffer and invited me as her guest to the White House staff holiday party. It was quite the offer: I would get to see the East Wing and drink champagne in the Red Room. What I did not realize is that I would also meet Michelle Obama.
There she was, the first lady, approaching me in the rope line. I thanked her for encouraging women and girls like me to pursue their interests in science and math. I thanked her for being such an amazing mentor to so many women. I thought she’d smile and move down the line. But she took both my hands, leaned in and said, “It’s you, you’re the mentor.” She told me to keep working hard so that I’ll be on the podium one day, inspiring other young women. “You’re the one who we should be saying thanks to,” she said.
I was stunned and nearly brought to tears. Why would I be on the podium? I was used to being the mentee, rationalizing my accomplishments; I looked up to others, I didn’t consider myself a leader. Her comments turned my years of impostor syndrome on their head.
The first lady herself has admitted to feeling this impostor syndrome. “There were moments when I had doubts,” she said of being a first-generation college student at Princeton. “At first, I even worried that maybe I just wasn’t as smart as some of my classmates.” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor echoed her in a talk at Pomona College, adding: “I acknowledge what I’m feeling, because I think the first step in changing anything is being truthful about it. And being truthful enough to say, ‘No, I may not be cultured in the same way [as the other justices]. If you’re comparing yourself to others you’re often going to find yourself short on something, especially if they have a background different from your own. But you’re there for a reason — you’re there to do something that’s unique to you.”
I’ve decided to take a new approach. I’m going to accept that I can need to receive support but still be able to give support to those who follow me in our field. I’m going to act like a person I’d want to look up to and pursue the opportunities I’d want for any other person in my job. Michelle Obama didn’t know anything about me when she gave me her advice. But you don’t have to fit the phenotype of a hero to be one. I can still be an exemplary software engineer even though I like Zumba and not StarCraft. There are other people like me looking around to see if they are alone. We aren’t. We belong.