This talk will share knowledge of how to support people who experience impostor syndrome, especially people from groups underrepresented in Free Software.
Many people from groups underrepresented in open source experience impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is the combination of unrelenting standards for yourself and a fear of people finding out that you're not knowledgeable or experienced, that you're a fake, an impostor. People from groups underrepresented in tech have to work twice as hard to receive recognition as people who don't face discrimination, which often leads to impostor syndrome. Women and ethnic/racial minorities are much more likely to face impostor syndrome. If Free Software is to become more diverse, the community needs to understand how to support people who experience impostor syndrome.
Most of the articles and training around impostor syndrome focus on changing the person who experiences impostor syndrome. What if instead, we focused on how the Free Software community could support people who experience impostor syndrome? How do we support our peers with impostor syndrome? How do we mentor someone with impostor syndrome? How do we acknowledge the work of community members who face impostor syndrome in a way that doesn't trigger the feelings of "I'm not good enough"?
Sage Sharp will draw on their experience working with the Outreachy internship program to provide tips for how to support people with impostor syndrome. Despite being a Linux kernel developer for seven years and a Diversity and Inclusion consultant for three years, Sage often personally struggles with impostor syndrome. Their talk will draw on personal experience and provide examples of what has worked for Outreachy mentors who work with people from groups underrepresented in tech.
Not another impostor syndrome talk...
CC0 Alan Levine
What is impostor syndrome?
First coined in 1978
"internal experience of intellectual phoniness in
people who believe that they are not intelligent,
capable or creative despite evidence of high
Why are marginalized people more likely to
experience impostor syndrome?
CC-BY 2.0 Caitlin Regan
Picture of a crowd at a technical conference. The 50 person crowd is
mostly white men. There is one man of color and one white woman
Who looks like a "real contributor"?
CC-BY 2.0 Phil Whitehouse
Who doesn't look like a "real contributor"?
10% of salaried tech employees are Black or Hispanic, 26% of tech contractors are Black or Hispanic,
58% of blue-collar contract workers are Black or Hispanic
In many American tech
● Mostly African American
● Mostly Latinx janitorial
Article title: "To the lady who mistook me for the help at the national book awards"
quote tweet by sailor mercury: "i think tech needs to take a hard look at why it's most comfortable with
underrepresented people in a beginner role"
Tracy Chou: "my experiences starting as female eng in industry were that coworkers were very nice and happy
to help when they could think of me as confused and clueless. i improved quickly though and then some
people started getting really resentful. openly questioning job offers i got, telling me i bragged too
Internal impact of impostor syndrome
● Feeling like all your accomplishments are due to
● Fear that people will find out you're a failure
● Fear of being seen as unintelligent
● Feeling like "everyone knows" more than you
How do I experience impostor syndrome?
● unrelenting standards for myself AND
● an inability to internalize praise
External impact of impostor syndrome
● looks like humbleness, low self-esteem, or
● hesitant to ask questions in public
● everything they do must be "perfect" before
● downplays their accomplishments
● "thank you" triggers them to tear down their work
Why don't people like asking questions?
● "google it"
● "everyone knows..."
● "you don't know X?!?" (feigning surprise)
● technical language
I recently got a pull request from someone who is
a technical writing student. It exemplifies why our
technical language forces us to pretend we're
A technical writing student at a university recently submitted a pull request to the Outreachy
website. I declined to take it as is, but it's indicative of why technical language culture is toxic:
Pull request by DerekRoy on Nov 7 2018
Changes to the document to improve flow, and clear up ambiguity:
- Occurrences of you and your were removed to increase authority
- Ambiguous sayings like "can", "maybe", and other unsure language were rephrased
- It was removed where possible and replaced with more informative words
- We and our was cut down to make the document more formal
- All contractions were expanded for clarity and formality
- Sentences were restructured to be more active and eliminate passive voice
"Technical language" turns us into frauds
We don't admit when:
● our project is hard to use
● our project is incomplete
● our contribution might be wrong
● we're not a subject expert
● we get stuck
This is a lie that we encourage newcomers to
accept, because it allows established contributors
to continue to be the expert, for our projects to be
perfect, for our documentation to always be up to
If you're confused, it's your fault
CC-BY 2.0 DaveBleasdale
Solution: Model uncertainty when...
● you're unsure of how to make a technical decision
● your contribution might be incorrect or incomplete
● you're documenting something that's hard to do
● you don't understand a word or concept
Solution: Normalize asking questions
● put help forum links in your documentation
● have a welcome committee to handle questions
● ask "What questions do you have?" rather than
"Do you have any questions?"
Reflex on being thanked
● "Thanks, that was a great talk. You're such a
● This person thinks I'm awesome, but I'm not...
● But if they only knew how much I struggled with
● Dismiss praise, talk about what parts of the talk
that weren't good
Giving Praise? Focus on your feelings.
● Use "I appreciate" or "I feel" instead of "thanks"
● It's harder to argue with someone saying "I feel
appreciation towards you"
● "I found your talk really insightful."
● They're not praising a thing that isn't perfect
● They're sharing a feeling of joy or delight
Impostor Syndrome Culture Myth #4:
Everything is effortless for everyone else
We often praise static characteristics
● "great talk"
● "good speaker"
● "you're so smart"
● triggers a flood of doubt
What happens when you praise static
● someone completes a task quickly
● "You're so smart!"
● someone completes a task slowly
● fear of not being seen as smart
● leads to hiding when you're struggling
Praise effort instead
● time spent researching
● effort put into rough drafts
● care taken to meet contribution guidelines
● time spent making good commit messages or
● reaching out to get help or review
● make the process of labor more visible
Creating a culture to praise effort
● ask people to share their resources
● reference previous draft work
● acknowledge months of discussions in commit
● credit people you learn from
● acknowledge reviewers and issue reporters
Countering Impostor Syndrome Culture
● challenge your bias on who is a "real contributor"
● model uncertainty
● document when your project is hard to use
● ask "What questions do you have?"
● praise effort rather than static characteristics
● acknowledge the process of creation
● use "I appreciate" or "I feel"
Sage Sharp <email@example.com>
Twitter: @_sagesharp_ or @ottertechllc
Effort - this talk took:
● 25 hours to prep slides
● 5 months of ideas noodling around my head
"Overcoming Impostor Syndrome" - LCA 2013 by Denise
Paolucci - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZg9rax-ky4
Values worksheet to combat impostor syndrome by Leigh
Honeywell - https://github.com/hypatia/virtuoso/