Jessica holds up her new Cisco branded backpack while wearing a Cisco t-shirt at home.This post was co-authored by Rashona Yang, Technical Consulting Engineer (TCE) Co-op and Jessica Aujla, a Technical Consulting Engineer Intern, from Virginia Tech College of Engineering.

Dumb question, but have you ever started your sentences with self-doubt? We’re all guilty of this at some point, and a highlight of our Cisco internship (and career growth!) became learning how to navigate imposter syndrome and turning it into self-empowerment as women in tech.

Imposter syndrome was introduced in the 1970s by psychologists when they studied successful women who believed their accomplishments were attributed to luck, rather than personal merit. It manifests in different ways, such as apologizing too much, but it originates from intimate insecurities that can come through in everyday language (much like the first question). With countless people experiencing imposter syndrome, especially women in STEM, the question becomes how can we transform these feelings of inadequacy into self-empowerment?

Imposter syndrome came about in many ways for us, and we realized we weren’t alone in this experience either. From constantly apologizing when we spoke at the same time as another co-worker (inevitable in this work-from-home era), to holding back questions and ideas and being too afraid that they were “dumb” – it became an internalized truth where we would end up holding our tongues.

Our personal journeys with imposter syndrome were quite similar, featuring strong feelings of inadequacy, without truly understanding their origin. Learning about the phenomenon was a blessing and a curse. It was freeing to know that this was a real issue and others experienced it. But now, we had to figure out how to move forward in a meaningful way without self-doubt creeping up at every moment.

As Technical Consulting Engineer co-op and interns on the Webex TAC team, we realized how harmful these habits were and needed to start communicating without disrespecting ourselves, especially as women in a technical position. We began to look for the sneaky grip of imposter syndrome and discussed ways to speak assertively. By opening up and calling each other out on self-deprecating words, we even made our insecurities an opportunity for growth.Rashona stands proudly next to a Cisco sign outside at our RTP campus.

It doesn’t have to be a sweeping change either; it can be something small that becomes substantial over time. We didn’t know it then, but self-empowerment is practiced.

How to Reframe Imposter Syndrome for Empowerment:

1. Find a Friend or Mentor to Consult: Having someone to talk to about these fears and hearing affirmation that it’s not “just you” is more comforting than you’d think. We found the more we opened up about these insecurities, the easier it was to spot and correct.

2. Reframe Your Internal and External Dialogue: Imposter syndrome can often make us unforgiving and critical towards ourselves. As a result, we have to change how we think of ourselves and practice self-compassion. This means evaluating your thoughts and reframing them to be positive for both conversations with yourself and others.

    1. Instead of “I’m sorry but can you explain…” use: “Excuse me can you explain…”
    2. Instead of “This may be a stupid question” use: “Quick question”
    3. Instead of “I don’t really know what I’m talking about” use: “I would really appreciate any input”

3. Be Willing to Take Chances: We can’t expect to grow as employees and leaders if we consistently stay in our comfort zone. If anything, imposter syndrome is only amplified by that. You have to open yourself up to new challenges and opportunities. In doing so, feelings of anxiety and inadequacy dull. In other words, be okay and willing to say, “I don’t know.”

A screenshot of the engineering interns enjoying their "ladies coffee talk" over Webex.

4. Listen to Women of Diverse Backgrounds: Something we both have found helpful is by listening to other women’s perspectives on this as it validated our insecurities and showed us that being vulnerable is okay. From participating in Women in STEM events to listening to Cisco Check-Ins, hearing these voices has been enlightening (we’re big fans of Susie Wee and Maria Martinez here!)

We hope that through this we can open up the dialogue on imposter syndrome and women empowerment, whether it be from our own stories or through the tips we’ve shared. Instead of dwelling on feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, shift your focus to empowering yourself and those around you.

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