Deepthi Nacharaju, a rising Duke University senior and biomedical engineering major, is well aware of the concept known as "imposter syndrome."
“I don’t know what I’m doing here. I feel like a fraud,” Nacharaju said as she discussed her internship at a local startup.
Imposter syndrome happens when you’re qualified for something but believe that you aren’t.
“When you’re one of four girls in 50 people, you start learning those words pretty early on,” Nacharaju said. “Just being a female in tech, it's common knowledge.”
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To help young women stay in technology fields, the three-year old Duke Technology Scholars program sets students up with summer internships, houses them together and offers programming and mentoring to keep them in the gender-imbalanced field. This is the first year DTech is hosting interns in the Triangle.
“We thought if we could engage young women early in their educational career and help connect them with meaningful internships, would they have this aha, lightbulb moment that they weren’t feeling in the classroom?” said Monica Jenkins, executive director of the program. “This is a stereotype, but a lot of times boys spend more of their high school years gaming, and girls spend less. So a lot of young women feel not as smart and they feel behind next to all these guys in the classroom.”
Fighting imposter syndrome
Though it’s called impostor syndrome nowadays, in 1978 psychologist Pauline Clance and her co-author, Suzanne Ines, defined impostor “phenomenon” as “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness.”
“It’s not an illness, it’s an experience,” Clance said. “People can work with it and change that experience. Hearing about it is also helpful, so people realize they aren’t the only people who experience this.”
Program participants realized that working through their feelings of inadequacy helped fight those feelings.
“You would never say the things you say to yourself to your friend,” participant Hannah Kelly said. “I might say ‘I have no idea how to do this, I’ve been a CS major for three years and I haven’t figured this out, I’m dumb, I don’t deserve to be here.’ But if your roommate came home crying and said those things to you, you’d say ‘of course they don’t expect you to figure that out right away, you’re here to learn and they know that, you have a great foundation.’ The group aspect of DTech helps transform that negative talk.”
DTech's summer apartments of eight to 10 interns may be the most unique aspect of the program, which today includes 65 participants culled from over 150 applicants.
“The reason for that is this feeling of isolation came up with every single student interview that I did,” Jenkins said. “Often in school they’re one of few women in their class; often at work they’re one of few or the only woman on their team.
“They get to come home at the end of the day and talk about their experiences with a group of like-minded women. They realize they aren’t the only one who feels like ‘if Apple only had known how little I know, they never would’ve hired me’.”
Keeping women in technology
Though women get 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees in the United States., they make up only 19 percent of graduating computer science majors, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. While incoming freshman computer science majors split between genders, women often drop out of the major, Jenkins said.
“If we want to change the big picture and get more women, we have to start younger,” Jenkins said. “Originally people just wanted to talk to our students who had finished junior year. But if companies only hire seniors, then we’re losing all the people who are dropping out on the way.”
Three participants are interning at Fidelity Investments in Research Triangle Park. Jenkins had reached out to the company, which then sent alumni to Duke to recruit from the program, said Rachel Book, director of diversity and inclusion at Fidelity.
“In the U.S. we have a greater demand for the talent than the available supply, and at the end of the day we need more people studying the technology skills for the future,” Book said. “We want to make sure we’re proactively seeking out a diverse talent pool and make sure we aren’t just satisfied with the default of whoever’s applying.”
Though the 1978 study focused only on high-achieving women, anyone can have impostor syndrome, Clance said.
“When men were given the test anonymously, their scores tended to be as high as that of women,” Clance said. “There is a difference, I do think that women face more discrimination, and I think men have been taught a little more to go ahead in spite of the fear. I hope women are now learning that, too.”
Just in the past year, researchers have studied imposter syndrome in minorities, medical students, librarians, Christians, software developers and others, according to a database that Clance maintains.
Over the past decades, it has become a perpetual research topic. But for individuals, it’s a daily phenomenon to get used to.
“It’s been really cool hearing the mentors at events say that they sometimes still have moments where they don’t know what’s going on, and you get more comfortable with that feeling,” participant Elizabeth Shulman said. “It takes the pressure off to know what we’re doing. It worked out for all these women, it will probably work out for us as well.”
So far the program is succeeding. Of the 14 DTech alumni who graduated this year, 13 accepted technology jobs, and one is heading to Princeton to pursue her Ph.D. in computer science.