#EqualPayDay, “impostor syndrome”, and flipping tables

Equal Pay Day was yesterday, and for the second year in a row Microsoft published their pay equity data:

Like last year, they neglected to include any data about the relative promotion velocities[1] and retention numbers of various demographics. This got me thinking.

Frits Vilhelm Holm 1916.jpg
An actual impostor, from Wikipedia’s List of Impostors

Impostor syndrome” is an entirely rational behavior for folks who do get called impostors (ie. many underrepresented people). It’s part coping mechanism, part just listening to the feedback you’re getting.

But there’s another side to it: it’s more painful to know that you’re good enough and then get passed over despite that than it is to feel like you’re not good enough. To have done all that work to get over the subtle and not-so-subtle voices saying that you’re not qualified, that you’re a charlatan, that you don’t “have enough personal experience to evaluate” (that one I got last year, ten years into working in my field 💅). All of the implicit and explicit bias, all of the socialization. To know that you are good enough, and for that to not be enough.

“I’m good enough” is fixable. It puts you in some small measure of control. Just work harder, speak up more, but make sure you’re not “abrasive”… Lean in so goddamn hard you sprain something, and you’ll eventually get there.

Sadly, that’s not what the research shows. I’m most familiar with the research on why women leave tech, but I believe this point is broadly applicable to underrepresented people. It’s clear that women leave tech because they get fed up with their careers stalling out. With going full steam ahead and running into things like the maternal wall and other deeply-held biases.

So they flip a table[2] and leave. Or they have a plan in place to do so, when the day comes.

We call it “impostor syndrome”, but we’re not sick. The real sickness is an industry that calls itself a meritocracy but over and over and over fails to actually reward merit.

This is fixable. It will take doing the work of rooting out bias in all its forms, at all levels – and critically, in who gets chosen to level up. So let’s get to work.

[1] Promotion velocity is a bit of a jargony HR term, but it’s an easy metric to quantify in companies like Microsoft where there are set career ladders – it’s the speed at which people move up through the ranks.

[2] A year ago today I published a bit of a rant at tableflip.club. There were some nice articles written about it, and you can of course follow it on Twitter, though I’ve not been very good at keeping it up to date. I didn’t exactly end up tableflipping (immigration got in the way of the whole starting-a-company thing, a story for another time) but I did do a heck of a lot of research before deciding where to go.