Impostor syndrome is rife, endemic even, in the tech industry, leaving so many of us feeling like we don’t belong, like we’re just one minor screwup or lack of knowledge from being outed as the frauds that we feel we are.
At the end of February, 2017, a Twitter thread started happening, where people in the tech community, prominent individuals who are widely seen as experts speaking up on all the things they can’t do, that they have to regularly look up, ask about, or otherwise make them feel like they’re not a real engineer.
It was, in many ways, heartwarming. So many people have spoken out about how vulnerability around our knowledge or abilities make our spaces safer for learning and growth, where not knowing is acceptable.
I was glad to contribute as well as well, lending my voice that I don’t know everything and that things are hard.
But, I also had to bring up a very important point that doing so, as a woman in tech and a visible minority is risky for me.
This risk is well-known by most women & minorities in STEM fields, and was so beautifully captured by this xkcd comic. We are held as torch-bearers, representatives of the classes to which we belong.
It is never that aurynn is bad at regexes but that women are bad at regexes, and I am the latest in a long line of stand-ins, each time a reinforcement that not having a skill in one area means a lack of skill in all areas.
Speaking out that I am anything less than the perfect epitome of a software developer means that I am giving people like that ammunition, reinforcing their thinking that I am not a real engineer, but a fake and impostor, and that I could never be like him.
A real engineer.
The False Meritocracy
This behaviour of gatekeeping women and minorities is a natural effect of contempt culture, as contempt culture itself is a performance of gatekeeping. We reject knowledge that is outside of the insular groups we belong to, because to acknowledge that such knowledge exists is to bring into question our right to status within the group.
Our social capital was built on the idea that we know the right things, and anyone who doesn’t, doesn’t belong to our group, and they’re not really a part of who we are. They didn’t even know that, for instance, Windows is bad, or PHP is bad, or that no one should use AOL.
One of the things I didn’t talk about with Contempt Culture is that we belong to multiple groups simultaneously. We belong to our programming community, where we learn that PHP is bad and that users of it should be mocked, but we also belong to the class of people who are like us.
We can see how we belong to this larger group when we do tech interviews, and base our decisions on “culture fit.” When we interview and talk to people like us, we are more sympathetic to them. We see ourselves in them, and the similarity of our histories mean that we have so much common ground, that we don’t have to work to find. It’s just there!
Middle class upbringing? Got bullied at school? No one understood you?
We walk down a list of checkmarks and find that they are like us, and we find ourselves understanding how they think, how they solve problems, how smart they are because they’re like us.
It’s not the same when it’s people who we don’t understand without trying. People from a PHP background, we don’t understand how they could use that tool, we don’t have a frame of reference for their experiences and knowledge. We can’t judge them, so we fall back to our cultural knowledge that PHP is bad and so too must they be.
Our culture keeps the gates, judges those who are different more harshly, scrutinises them further to ensure they’re real, code for nothing more than already like us.
Recently I talked about how one of the side-effects of contempt culture is the reinforcement of displaying and performing ignorance, through a refusal to examine or challenge what we think and why.
Gatekeeping is an act of performative ignorance. We are performing ignorance, reinforcing that we shouldn’t have to look outside of ourselves for knowledge or answers, because we know enough already.
We perform ignorance that their skills are worthy, because we already know that their skills are not, because they are different and we have no frame of reference.
We perform ignorance in that we will not work to understand their frame of reference.
We perform ignorance when we generalise them and fall back on the stereotypes that our cultural ideals we’ve been taught. The last time we saw a woman in tech, they failed at this thing, so I’ll have to test her. Oh, and she failed at this other thing too.
Women must be bad at tech, they’re clearly not real.
Worse than biases being applied to us by those performing ignorance is how the biases against us linger, a stain that will not wash away.
I’ve heard so many stories of how not knowing something early in a career means that they are now known to not know it, or where having caused an outage means they are now known to be unreliable.
The demand of perfection starts at day 1, and never ceases.
Fear and Loathing
Contempt culture forces those of us already here to stay quiet, to risk our permission to belong when being in tech is only one axis of our belonging, and our lack of belonging on the other axis makes any slip-up damning.
We live in fear of liking the wrong tool or admitting to the wrong person that we don’t know, that at any moment the fragile thread of our sense of belonging and participation will be severed, ripped apart by the people we thought we’d appeased.
The forward projection of biases means that any of these minor failures will be a part of the history others carry of us, a part of how as torch-bearers we have Let Down all of those like us, and we lose permission to improve, or grow, learn, or do anything but be quietly excellent from the start.
I could cause an outage and it would not be aurynn who is bad at operations, but women, all because I am different, because there is no frame of reference. But for someone with culture fit, with shared histories, with stories that match, well, I know what he was thinking.
I see how he could have screwed up.
It’s not his fault.
It was just this once.