Her PR Problem

Rikki Endsley

ROSE Blog: Rikki's Open Source Exchange

Apr 13, 2009 GMT
Rikki Kite

We've all seen the statistics and it's clear that women are a minority in the world of free and open source technology, and there are plenty of articles and research papers that offer ideas to help increase participation by women. What about women already working in open source? How do we take the next step up in our careers and help pull other women up with us? And what can our male colleagues do to help?

In this article, which is a summary of a talk I gave at SCALE 7x, I will discuss some lessons I've learned over the course of my 12 years working in tech publishing.

Imposter Syndrome

If I could play a doctor on t.v. and act in a Women in Open Source Technology infomercial, my part would start like this: "Have you heard of Imposter Syndrome? Do you suffer from it?"

While I was in grad school in 2006 and still working at Sys Admin magazine, I was offered the position of managing editor at Linux Pro magazine. Linux New Media, Linux Pro's parent company, wanted to open its first North American office in Lawrence, Kansas – my home town. Not long after accepting this new position, I had dinner with a fellow grad student, Heidi, and I told her that I felt like a complete fraud in school and at work and eventually everyone would figure out that I have no idea what I'm doing. She told me that it's called Imposter Syndrome. "I have it, too," she said.

The term "Imposter Phenomenon" or "Imposter Syndrome" was coined in 1978. Some studies suggest that men also experience Imposter Syndrome. In short, imposters feel that their success is related to luck or some other outside force, whereas the success of their peers is a result of skill. Imposters are less likely to put their work up for evaluation for fear of being outed. They tend to fly below the radar.

Feeling like an imposter is not necessarily about self-esteem because this phenomenon is found in a lot in highly successful, driven women in academics and sciences – it has to do more with being a perfectionist or self-critical.

After this conversation with my friend, I started looking more closely at colleagues – both current and past – and I saw that coming off as confident was more important than feeling confident. Ultimately, you will be judged on your track record and the results you get.

So you think you're an imposter, now what?

  • Recognize that you are not alone: It's ok to talk about feeling like an imposter with mentors, friends, or other support networks.
    It helps me if I remind myself that I can't be good at everything. Each of us can excel at many things, but not everything. For example, I'm a good mother (despite what my offspring will tell you), I'm a decent amateur plumber, and I'm not horrible at yoga. I'm good at telling whether a car repair is going to be expensive or cheap based on the way the car sounds. However, I'm not good at remembering numbers or names, and I'm not the best at public speaking. Oh well – I can't be good at everything.
  • Reframe failure as a learning opportunity: One time I sent an email out to a few hundred people, and I received an email response from one recipient who made fun of a "Managing Editor" making a typo. I literally had a nightmare about it that night and couldn't sleep. On the bright side, I probably will never misspell the word "complimentary" again. What a lovely learning opportunity.
  • Don't beat yourself up: If necessary, remind yourself of all the things you've done right rather than focus on a stumble.

Assertive vs. Aggressive

A few years ago my mother said, "The women in our family have a hard time being assertive without coming across as aggressive." At the time, I wasn't sure what she meant.

What's the difference? Being assertive means speaking with confidence without coming off as cocky. Or in my case, without intimidating people.

Men don't seem to have as much of an issue with asserting themselves in the workplace. A lot of women, however, would benefit from some assertiveness training. Women expect that their good performance will get noticed and rewarded. The truth is that women shouldn't wait for some recognition or reward – we need to participate actively by saying what we think, want, or expect.

Why? Here's an example: My stepfather told me about hiring a man and a woman to fill two positions in his company. The man started off at a higher salary from the beginning – and the only reason why was because he asked for it. The equally qualified woman accepted what was offered without negotiating. After this conversation with my stepfather, I guarantee I learned a lesson about salary negotiations.

Tips for being assertive:

  • State your point briefly and clearly.
  • Assertive speech is good: It's just business, and just the facts.
  • Aggressive speech is bad: It involves emotions.
  • Don't embarrass colleagues or make personal attacks.
  • Be confident and cool. (Or at least appear that way.)

Are You Already Being Assertive?

If no one is listening, maybe it's not you – it's them.

By the time I left my former company and started at Linux New Media and Linux Pro magazine, I had doubts about my ability to be heard. At my old company, I felt like I'd asserted myself over the years but still got overlooked or ignored. When I started working at Linux Pro, at first I didn't chime in on conference calls with my colleagues. My new (German) colleagues were quite direct and to the point, and they expected me to be, too. They want my opinion, otherwise they wonder why I don't have an opinion.

I quickly discovered that I had the freedom to say what I think and people actually listen. In hindsight, I realize that maybe my previous company just wasn't the right fit for me. I didn't feel heard or valued – I get a lot more satisfaction from an environment that fosters contributions, and I contribute a lot more when I feel like my contributions are appreciated.

Tooting the Horns of Other Women

Not long after being hired at Linux Pro, I was debating what to do about my thesis. During a dinner meeting, my colleagues and I were discussing blogs on our websites, and they suggested that I write a blog about women in open source. The idea stuck. The more research I did, the more the idea gelled. I ended writing my thesis about the process of researching and rolling out my blog for work.

I decided that my focus would be broad and I'd look at the entire world of women in open source. I wanted to make a blog that would interest men and women. I wanted the freedom to cover any issue related to women in technology, which means that I can cover an article that was written by a woman, or an article written about a woman. I could write about an event for women, or an event organized by women, or an event women are attending. I could write about future Women in Open Source – topics related to girls and technology.

My blog doesn't focus on what's wrong. Instead, it focuses on what's right, or what could be improved. Mostly, I want to draw attention to the people and projects. We don't have a Male/Female label in front of our names online. Rikki? Mitchell? Dru? Sometimes you have to dig to find out what women in open source are doing.

Generally, I'm not the most comfortable about tooting my own horn. However, I am enthusiastic about drawing attention to what other people are doing, especially what other women are doing. If self-promotion isn't your strongest area, consider how you can help draw attention to other women in open source.

Here's what I discovered – by tooting the horns of other women, self-promotion accidentally happens. When I write about someone and link to their site or blog, they see the link and then know who I am. I've just done my own little PR and made someone else aware of me, while making other people aware of another woman in our field. Since starting my blog more than a year ago, I've met many women online and in person because I wrote about them on my blog. This has been a happy accident of a networking opportunity.

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

So maybe you're not comfortable tooting your own horn. Ask yourself: Am I the person holding myself back?

Maybe there's something else you want to do – personally or professionally – but you hear yourself say, "I wish I could do that, but... ." I'll give you an example of how getting out of my comfort zone in my personal life has helped me in my professional life. A few years ago, I saw that the University of Kansas was holding open auditions for a local production of The Vagina Monologues. I heard myself say, "I wish I could audition, but I could never do that." I can't act. I don't like being the center of attention. I have stage fright. I get nervous. And so on. But I wanted to be the kind of person who wasn't afraid of getting on stage and performing in The Vagina Monologues.

I didn't like hearing myself say that I wanted to do something but I couldn't, so I forced myself to audition, just to see what would happen. And I got the part. I ended up performing in The Vagina Monologues for three years.

Last year, at SCALE 6x, I talked to several speakers about my desire to give a talk at an event. They were very encouraging, and I gave it a lot of thought since then. I thought about what was holding me back – I didn't feel qualified. I thought people would know that I didn't know what I was doing. I'm not good at public speaking. I don't like to be the center of attention.

Then I remembered – I've been in my career for more than decade. I didn't get here by luck or accident. I wrote a thesis about it and my committee loved it. I've been blogging about women in open source for more than a year. And I also remembered: I played the role of The Woman Who Loved To Make Vaginas Happy on stage in front of 600 people – and my father – so talking about women in open source at SCALE should not freak me out.

So I did it. At SCALE 7x, I talked in front of a room full of people in the Women in Open Source track. Was it perfect? Um, no. But the beauty of it was that I knew it wouldn't be perfect because only practice makes it perfect. The first time can be the worst time, in fact.

What was perfect, however, was my audience. People came to my talk for many reasons, but one reason stood out: Some people came just to support me. That was another reminder for me that we work with people who are eager to see us succeed. More importantly, we work with people who want to help us succeed.

Daily Affirmations

When I was researching the idea of self-promotion for women, I ran across tiffanybbrown.com. In 2004, Tiffany wrote a blog post called "Fake-it-’til-you-make-it-ology". She wrote:

"Lately, several web professionals have asked why there aren’t more high-profile women working with CSS. Now, this could just as easily be 'Why aren’t there more high-profile women in business?' or 'Why aren’t there more high-profile women coaching college sports teams?' and so on. Many folks have suggested reasons, including from ingrained sexism (I agree) to variations on the 'It’s too complex for women' (bull shit) theme. I think one key reason is this: Women, on the whole, don’t self-promote. Oh, there are plenty of women using CSS. But there aren’t plenty of women tooting their own horn. Why is that? We don’t know the rules of the game."

Tiffany offers her Daily Affirmations for women in tech:
1. I know my shit. Not only do I know my shit, but people who I think know more than me may actually know less than I do.
2. Stop trippin’. I am where I am because I can do the job. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have made it past the interview.
3. Pretend I know. Don’t make an ass or a liar out of myself. But say it with authority, even if I’m not sure. If they’re asking me, chances are they don’t know either.
4. I will be a braggart. Knowing my shit means nothing if no one knows that I know it. The only way they’ll know is if I tell them and back it up by showing them.
5. I will not wait for approval or validation of my skills. Why not? See affirmation number 1.

Here's my example of tooting someone's horn. I found Tiffany's blog, liked what I saw, and I tooted her horn. (I asked for permission from her, first. So now she knows who I am, too.) And now you've heard of Tiffany B. Brown.

Now get out there and do a little PR! And don't forget to help draw attention to what other women in open source are doing, too.


  • thanks for the feedback!

    Thanks for all the great comments and emails! I'm curious to hear personal experiences of how tooting your own horn or helping draw attention to a colleague has worked out for you, too!
  • Great sharinga dn inspiration!

    You have summed up what so many people feel - that they are somehow not good enough regardless of how much experience they have. This is a battle I have fought all my life and now guide others to transform stage fright and fear of public speaking into authentic presence so they feel confident to share their ideas and insights with the world. In 20 plus years of coaching people for speaking and acting, I have found that the people with the most fear turn out to be the most compelling communicatots of all because they have the feelings. People with stage fright have a high degree of sensitivity. Their feelinsg a e up to the surface where they can be used to create a genuine connection with listeners. So you got the part because you had passionate feelings that translated into talent. Bravo for your courage and for sharing so authentically!
    for more of my unconventional ideas about stage fright, I invite you to visit my blog at http://self-expression.com/speaking-freely

    Sandra Zimmer
  • Excellent post

    Imposter syndrome is alive and well, and in my experience, too many women fall for it. I used to have that problem, but over the years I've been convinced, by coworkers, peers, and friends that... I really must be that good. Blowing ones own horn is *not* a bad thing, and women have to get over that hurdle.

    Thanks for the great post!
  • PR Problem

    "Impostor Sydrome" - I have this too, but I didn't know it had a name! Thanks for this thoughtful article.
  • Are you reading my mind?

    I didn't even wait until I got to the end of your post before bookmarking it. You are dead on in everything you say. I don't promote myself, even though it can make the difference between success and failure sometimes. And, yes, I often feel like an impostor. You've spurred to me suck it up and start promoting myself, even if it's way outside my comfort zone, and also made me tell that little voice in my head yelling, "Impostor!" to STFU. big-smile
  • thanks for writing this post

    Great post. Full of so many of my own thoughts. A pleasure to read and good reminders for every professional woman.
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