On being a coloured female in the IT industry and overcoming impostor’s syndrome

Lately, I’ve been really thinking about my place in the IT industry as a coloured female software developer and even more so since I watched Hidden Figures on the plane from Perth to Brisbane a few days ago. If you haven’t heard of this inspiring film, it’s basically based on the true story of 3 African-American female NASA mathematicians who contributed significantly to the Space Race in the 1960s. Pretty kick-ass stuff I must tell you.

Being a coloured female was something that never terribly bothered me too much when I worked in the oil and gas industry. The industry has a strong reputation for being very male-dominated and testosterone-fuelled but working in the IT department, I never really felt that vibe. People were just people (and super awesome people at that) and there were a crap load of females. Indeed, when I started out, in my year there were 2 female IT graduates and 1 male IT graduate. Considering that getting females into IT careers always has and still is a pretty huge challenge, this was quite the big deal to me.

Granted, the vast majority of these females were more likely to be in consulting, project management and business analysis roles. Technical roles such as SharePoint/.NET developers and Business Intelligence developers were predominantly filled by males. When I first started out in Business Intelligence, there was only me and one other female and about 5 or 6 males. When I joined the .NET development team, there was once again only myself and one other female but about 10 other males.

Being of Maori background never seemed to bother me too much either because I worked with a large variety of nationalities from Australian to South African, English to Malaysian, Indian to French and everything in between.

But then I moved to a small company at the end of last year as a software developer and all of a sudden my differences stuck out like by a country mile – at least to me. I am the only brown person in the company. I am also the only female in the company.

And although I’ve been in the IT industry for over 4 years and I am working with some wonderful, intelligent and very welcoming guys, I am ashamed to say I have never felt more “dumb” as I do right now.

It’s silly really. I have a first class honours degree in computer science (I can still remember the pain of obtaining said degree). I know how to write code that compiles. I know how to refactor code so it’s easy to read and understand for the next programmer who comes along. I know how to debug an error and fix it. It may take me a bit longer than my colleagues but I know I can do it.

Graduating from university with first class honours in 2013
Throwback: Graduating from university with a first class honours computer science degree in 2013.

But the moment my peers start talking algorithms and mathematical theorems and the pros and cons of Angular I freak out. I’m unable to join in the discussions. I just sit there like a zombie, scared that one day somebody is going to catch me out. It takes me back to my uni days when I was a minority in a lecture hall full of pasty white super smart males who already knew how to program years ago as acne-prone teens. I don’t mean to stereotype but this was seriously my experience.

Hello, Impostor’s Syndrome! Boy do you suck.

What is this “Impostor’s Syndrome” you may ask? Well according to Wikipedia, it is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

It’s frustrating because as a self-declared introvert, I struggle enough with just finding enough energy to function around groups of people all day and so now I have to find more energy to “act” smart when I already am smart. Does being a brown female lower my intelligence levels? I think not.

So instead of freaking out and feeling dumb, I am going to make the most of this opportunity I have been given to learn off these wonderful, smart guys I am fortunate to call my work colleagues and absorb everything I can, no matter how sore my brain gets (and believe me, there are so many days when I go home with brain overload).

I’m going to work hard to continue to develop my technical skills and knowledge. In fact I’m about to start studying towards gaining a Microsoft Developer Certification, which I’m pretty excited about even if it means sitting exams which aren’t exactly my favourite thing in the world but it’ll be worth it.

And I am going to embrace my own differences and skills that only I can bring to the table. Like being able to influence and soften up difficult customers, develop good relationships with people by asking about their families rather than their jobs and what they could do for me, write good user guides, visualise data, make prototypes, provide good user experiences and write comprehensive emails with good screenshots.

What would I like you to take out of this? I guess a few things.

First of all, where you feel most out of your depth is probably where you have the most room to grow and challenge yourself. Embrace it. Embrace all the uncertainty. Embrace the difficulty. Embrace that feeling of feeling like you’re the dumbest person in the world. Embrace it with both arms and go smash the hell out of the opportunity you’ve been given!

Second of all, don’t be afraid to share your skills. You have things to bring to the table that no one else can offer. Bring these things to the table in a shiny gold bowl because they are damn precious, wonderful things I can assure you. Even being able to create advanced formulas and macros in Excel is a wonderful thing and I am secretly jealous of people with mad Excel skills.

Be proud of who you are – whether you’re white, black, brown, male or female, super short, super tall, skinny or large, gay, straight and everything in between. Accept that you might be of a different skin colour or have different body parts or not look like the stereotype for your job. You have the skills, the knowledge, the smarts, the passion… and that’s all that matters. Yes, there will be those that disagree passionately with that statement but quite frankly they don’t matter at all.

And finally, be sure to one day help others in the same situation as yourself. Whether that means writing articles like this, becoming a mentor for some sort of after school group for young girls or joining or starting a meetup group of females or indigenous people or ginger haired people in your industry and forming a brotherhood/sisterhood/siblinghood.

Let’s all raise each other up to have confidence, to believe in ourselves and our abilities regardless of who we are and where we come from!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *