Impostor Syndrome vs Everyday Extraordinary Syndrome

1 November 2013, 19:41

Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora of the Ada Initiative recently wrote a guest post for the USENIX blog called Impostor Syndrome-Proof Yourself and Your Community. I found this point, made almost off-hand, rather striking:

Often Impostor Syndrome is a completely rational response to being called an impostor over and over. In fields in which women are not supposed to be good (and where sexism is rife), women are more likely to face Impostor Syndrome. The idea that most people, when their skills, authority, and legitimacy are regularly questioned, can answer with a “Not so, I’ll show you” is a myth. Rather, when our community tells us over and over that we’re imposters, we start to believe it.

(My emphasis.) It makes total sense. It is not merely a coincidence that women in male-dominated fields should face this indiscriminately. Of course, it is related – of course.

I was reminded of this when someone on a widely-read tech mailing list made a “tongue in cheek” (pff) comment about the evils of affirmative action:

We see ourselves as a meritocracy; for sake of honesty and transparency, our special programmes for women should candidly admit patronage of incompetence over political correctness. Let’s cancel our “women in IT” programmes and replace them with programmes that reward “incompetent women in IT,” or at least to widen eligibility to include hamsters and fish.

Yep. Incompetent women, hamsters and fish.

I am reminded of a quip that we will know there is equality when there is just as many incompetent women in power as there are men.

Specifically, what reading a post like this reminds me, is that a non-trivial number of people in a geek crowd will see my name on a mailing list or see my face at a conference, and they will wonder. Does she deserve to be here? When I give a talk, they will wonder, is she a token appointment? If someone congratulates me on something I’ve done, they will wonder, is it just because she’s a girl? Whether I succeed on skill or not, some people will always look at me sceptically and doubt my abilities.

My intention is not to talk about affirmative action, but cultural dissonance of belonging to a community that suspects at first glance, you’re probably in the wrong place.

One of the suggested counter-actions to impostor syndrome is to Go to an in-person Impostor Syndrome session at a conference, from your workplace training program, or your school: There’s nothing like being in a room full of people you respect and discovering that 90% of them have Impostor Syndrome.

This is good advice. And the flip side of Impostor Syndrome is maybe this point by Garann Means, made better than I could:

When you go to a fucking conference and you look around at all the white dudes, do you really honestly think, “Wow! What a bizarre fucking statistical anomaly it is that basically everyone with the special magic gift of computer programming happened to be born into a teeny tiny little demographic sliver of the population”? Of course you don’t. You don’t think about it. You focus on telling yourself that you’re supposed to be there, because you’re so fucking smart, and if other people were as smart or, if you prefer, they were “technically inclined,” they could be there just as easily.

Should there be a term for the inflated sense of personal achievement and bright-eyed belief in meritocracy that comes from unexamined privilege? I put “Everyday Extraordinary Syndrome” in the title but it’s not ideal. It’s probably more widespread than Impostor Syndrome, and is arguably more harmful (to others, if not the individual).

Any individual’s achievements will be a result of both of their personal actions and societal forces. Privilege silently and seamlessly working in your favour in some cases, and systemic discrimination and isms working against you in other cases, where sometimes you won’t even know which doors were closed before you thought to look (or maybe you were discouraged from looking well before then), and other times you definitely know.

Anyway, I’ve a little thought experiment to cap this off with. It will only take, hmm, the rest of your life.

Imagine that what minorities report about their lives is actually true.

Chew, swallow, digest.

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  1. I’m one of the privileged, but I still strongly remember turning up to the speakers dinner before the first LCA (at the Coogee Beach Hotel) and being told “we don’t think you belong here”.

    — Brad Hards · Nov 2, 01:30 pm · #

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