I began to believe that since I still wasn’t trusted to take on bigger projects, I was somehow still in need of improvement in areas I excelled in. Being constantly dismissed created a cognitive block that made me hesitant on every decision I made in my code. It whittled away at my confidence to make bold decisions that could make me stand out. After so long of immediate interrogation and dismissal, I now presented my thoughts as meek suggestions. My work suffered as a result. I was outputting code with no particular imprint of my own for almost 2 years.

The stress added up. Self-care is not looked upon highly as a web developer. It’s a badge of honor to stay up doing midnight releases and drink absurd amounts of coffee. Portraying the image of the burdened genius is way more accepted than admitting that you are burnt out from settling bugs all day and that you don’t want to look at code when you get home. With the cloud of imposter syndrome hovering over me, I convinced myself that I did not work hard enough to deserve a moment to relax. Instead of putting the laptop down, I was focused on learning everything I could in my free time. I began to suffer from more frequent anxiety attacks, weight gain, and an overall clouded state of mind. Any new coworker interactions suffered due to my anxiety. Outside of the job, I was often too exhausted to go to other tech events I really wanted to indulge in.

I became consumed with proving myself. Still, all the advice I received came in the form of a pep talk to “believe in myself” again. This common response to the struggles of women in tech reinforces the idea that imposter syndrome is the ONLY lens to view and cope… but the truth is, our negative experiences in tech are usually outside of our control. The overwhelming focus on imposter syndrome doesn’t provide a space to process the power dynamics affecting you; you get gaslighted into thinking it’s you causing all the problems.

Alexis Hancock on environmental hazards.

When I first bookmarked this post, way back in April, I was deep in the middle of a situation similar to the one described above. That is, I was a technical expert having to report to inexperienced older men who did not like one bit that I’d had more experience than they did1 and were determined to put me in my place at every opportunity. Every mistake the team made was my fault2–even things that weren’t actually mistakes, but could be spun as mistakes by my boss–and every success wasn’t, even there was no universe in which the project would’ve been delivered without me.

It was a hellish eight-ish months; the worst job experience I’ve ever had.

I’m out of that situation now, but the scars from it still linger. I have a bunch of unhealthy, defensive behaviors I can occasionally backslide into when situations remind me of my old job. I find it much, much harder now to assert seniority than I did this time last year. I still lack confidence in my own ability, after having it systemically and unjustly dismantled.3

I’m… getting better. But it’s a slow process.

And, see. Here’s the terrible catch-22. When all the horrible things were happening to me, I knew they were happening. I knew about gaslighting, about impostor syndrome, about microaggressions, about office housework. I knew. What they don’t tell you, though, is that knowing doesn’t actually help you when you’re still powerless to change what’s going on.

For better or for worse, life isn’t a YA novel: one plucky girl isn’t going to bring down the evil empire. The best you can do it recognize a bad situation and get out of it.

  1. Including experience in the jobs they were doing. I’d basically down-stepped from a management job into a fully technical role to get paid more and, in theory, experience less stress. In making that calculation I hadn’t accounted for “working for literal sociopaths”. Bummer.
  2. Which meant I ended up having to do “people management” anyway. So much for that.
  3. There’s a difference–a big difference–between having your work constructively criticized and having it nitpicked by people whose main issue is the fact that you wrote it. If you don’t know the difference, it’s likely one or the other has never happened to you. For your sake, I hope it’s the latter.