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Countering impostor syndrome culture


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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.

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Countering impostor syndrome culture

  1. 1. Countering Impostor Syndrome Culture CC-BY-SA 4.0 Sage Sharp @_sagesharp_ they/them pronouns
  2. 2. Not another impostor syndrome talk... CC0 Alan Levine
  3. 3. 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 achievement."
  4. 4. Why are marginalized people more likely to experience impostor syndrome? CC-BY 2.0 Caitlin Regan
  5. 5. 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 visible. Who looks like a "real contributor"? CC-BY 2.0 Phil Whitehouse
  6. 6. 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 companies: ● Mostly African American security personnel ● Mostly Latinx janitorial staff
  7. 7. Article title: "To the lady who mistook me for the help at the national book awards"
  8. 8. 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 much."
  9. 9. Internal impact of impostor syndrome ● Feeling like all your accomplishments are due to luck ● Fear that people will find out you're a failure ● Fear of being seen as unintelligent ● Feeling like "everyone knows" more than you
  10. 10. How do I experience impostor syndrome? ● unrelenting standards for myself AND ● an inability to internalize praise
  11. 11. External impact of impostor syndrome ● looks like humbleness, low self-esteem, or perfectionism ● hesitant to ask questions in public ● everything they do must be "perfect" before submitting it ● downplays their accomplishments ● "thank you" triggers them to tear down their work
  12. 12. Impostor Syndrome Culture Myth #2: Don't ask questions CC-BY 2.0 Marco Bellucci
  13. 13. Why don't people like asking questions? ● "RTFM" ● "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
  14. 14. 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: Update 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
  15. 15. "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
  16. 16. 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 date. If you're confused, it's your fault CC-BY 2.0 DaveBleasdale
  17. 17. 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
  18. 18. 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?"
  19. 19. Impostor Syndrome Culture Myth #3: Be humble CC-BY-SA 2.0 amboo who?
  20. 20. Reflex on being thanked ● "Thanks, that was a great talk. You're such a good speaker." ● This person thinks I'm awesome, but I'm not... ● But if they only knew how much I struggled with this talk... ● Dismiss praise, talk about what parts of the talk that weren't good
  21. 21. 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
  22. 22. Impostor Syndrome Culture Myth #4: Everything is effortless for everyone else CC0 Pascal
  23. 23. We often praise static characteristics ● "great talk" ● "good speaker" ● "you're so smart" ● triggers a flood of doubt
  24. 24. What happens when you praise static characteristics? ● 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
  25. 25. Praise effort instead ● time spent researching ● effort put into rough drafts ● care taken to meet contribution guidelines ● time spent making good commit messages or documentation ● reaching out to get help or review ● make the process of labor more visible
  26. 26. Creating a culture to praise effort ● ask people to share their resources ● reference previous draft work ● acknowledge months of discussions in commit messages ● credit people you learn from ● acknowledge reviewers and issue reporters
  27. 27. 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"
  28. 28. Thanks! Sage Sharp <> Twitter: @_sagesharp_ or @ottertechllc Effort - this talk took: ● 25 hours to prep slides ● 5 months of ideas noodling around my head
  29. 29. Resources "Overcoming Impostor Syndrome" - LCA 2013 by Denise Paolucci - Values worksheet to combat impostor syndrome by Leigh Honeywell -