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Quantum Hackathons: Easier Than Battling Imposter Syndrome?
March 8th is International Women's Day. In order to highlight the experiences of women working in quantum science and technology, Master's student Emily Haworth reflects on her experience as a woman attending a quantum hackathon.
Quantum Hackathons: Easier Than Battling Imposter Syndrome?
I’d started to feel like I was severely missing out by not having competed in a hackathon before. They appeared very popular, especially as learning experiences. The moment I was accepted to my first hackathon last year, I looked through the names of the 60 other participants. Without even actively searching, I began to wonder: “Am I the only woman?!“
I meticulously scanned the list of names until I found one that might belong to a woman. I felt a moment of relief, which was quickly replaced by such sadness that there would be so few of us. At the same time, I understood; I’d been so hesitant to apply myself, and I’d never even wanted to participate before. I suppose because I didn’t feel I belonged.
I remember how relieved I was to first learn about imposter syndrome which drives this feeling. It causes people to feel intense self-doubt, like they’re imposters in their environment, despite evidence of their success. There are so many women I admire who have surprised me by sharing that they also struggle with imposter syndrome. Learning it is such a common phenomenon made me think I could easily suppress these feelings. Yet the thoughts keep creeping back: maybe it is still true. Maybe I have been systemically held back, but by listening to these thoughts I had been holding myself back as well.
Applying to the quantum hackathon made all these feelings flare up. This was a big step out of my comfort zone – possibly the biggest I’d taken so far in my career. Coding is a skill that I always want to improve on. But even as I code more I still often worry: what happens if I’m not as good as everyone else? If I ask for help, will others realise I don’t belong here? It’s a vicious cycle, since asking for help is precisely what creates opportunities for learning. As I sat staring at the application form, I made a resolution: “I want to be the person who has done this. Therefore, I’m going to do it, and not overthink the in-between right now.”
The moment I was accepted and scanned that list of names for any other women, I felt – as you might imagine – mixed emotions. I was thrilled at the chance to push myself and learn more, but felt immense pressure as one of the very few women who would be there. Would I be representing my entire gender? If I’m bad at coding, will people think all women are bad at coding, the same way they do if I throw a ball badly?! I wouldn’t let this happen. I threw myself into hyper-achieving, working late into every night to prepare, reading through past hackathon solutions, GitHub repositories, and the various documentation from the providers attending.
The pressure only seemed to build. When reaching out to my new team on WhatsApp, part of me felt the urge to self-sabotage. Despite all my work and preparation, I didn’t want to feel responsible for all women. If I played down my ability, undermining myself right from the start, then I’d be less able to disappoint them. There was a twisted logic there, but like all self-sabotaging thoughts, it was counterproductive to what I really wanted. I wanted to learn from this experience by being included and listened to. I had a word with myself and introduced myself with my experience, just as my teammates were doing – not just telling everyone how nervous I felt. It took a lot of effort to keep this anxiety hidden; it grew stronger in the weeks leading up to the hackathon. It became nearly overwhelming as I walked to the venue and felt my suspicions were confirmed, seeing only men standing outside, never feeling more like an imposter than I did in that moment.
To anyone who’s never been paralysed with such feelings, this might seem hard to understand. Doesn’t being nearly the only woman at an event make you feel special? In my experience, it’s mostly just uncomfortable. Every interaction, even seemingly innocuous ones, puts me on edge. Does this person really want to hear from me, or are they just trying to flirt? Am I being highlighted based on merit, or just because of how I look? I had shared these thoughts with a friend, who then asked me whether I still wanted to go. That question had filled me with renewed motivation. How will women ever belong if we don’t assert ourselves when we have the chance?
And I’m glad I did – I had the most brilliant time! From a career standpoint, the hackathon was exactly the experience I hoped it would be. I met wonderful, inspiring people and found it to be a fun, competitive environment that supported the development of technical understanding and communication. Especially with having studied QST almost entirely remotely so far, it was helpful in becoming significantly more comfortable discussing technical topics. Hackathons allow people to learn by applying knowledge to an example: a style that many find beneficial, but that doesn’t regularly arise in academic studies. From a personal standpoint, I felt proud to have expanded my comfort zone, more confident that I can continue doing so in the future. Pushing through my imposter syndrome allowed me to learn something new, and a love of learning is why I’m here after all. The more we talk about these feelings openly and honestly, the easier it becomes for everyone in the community to help eradicate them.
Seeing another woman at the hackathon, who was there representing a quantum company, also did a lot to assuage my nerves. And although I had a wonderful experience, my initial apprehension wasn’t unjustified. For example, when it comes to networking, my expectations are simply to get to know the other people I am working with. However, all too often my male colleagues don’t just see me in a professional capacity, and instead switch over to a social mindset. It becomes exhausting to navigate. Furthermore, any remarks or questions that single me out as a woman – however well-meant they may be – contribute to a feeling of not belonging. It’s never helpful to constantly be reminded that you’re an outsider.
So, what is the best way to make women feel welcome? I’ve heard it suggested again and again that we should “treat women like men” or even that women should try to act more like men – but no one should feel like they need to be less feminine in order to progress within a STEM field. Treating someone professionally doesn’t mean treating them like a man. People have even suggested to me that I become more distant and cutting to be more successful in my career. I would counter that everyone should confront their unconscious biases, recognise their own microaggressions, and act more inclusively in their professional lives. This isn’t just about trying to punch through the glass ceiling; it needs to not be put there in the first place.
We all have work to do. In particular, those who occupy positions of power – still overwhelmingly men – need to not only respect women, but hire them, amplify their work, and offer them more opportunities. Everyone has unconscious biases, but until everyone acknowledges and confronts their biases, actively listens, and educates themselves, we won’t be able to create an environment that is truly welcoming to everyone.
And women – take the opportunity! I’m no stranger to feeling like an imposter, or to feeling that I’m only getting an offer based on fulfilling a quota. But it’s taken real resilience to get to that point - you’re there for a reason, you’ve earned it, and we all need you in that role.
Emily Haworth is a student in the QST Master’s Program and created the PushQuantum: Climate intiative.
Emily's Recommended Reading:
- "You're Not a Fraud. Here’s How to Recognize and Overcome Imposter Syndrome"
- "What Is Stereotype Threat? The Negative Effects of Worrying About Confirming a Stereotype"
- "Gender Equality in Academica and Research"
- "16 Unconscious Bias Examples and How to Avoid Them in the Workplace"
Cover Image: “International Women's Day” by Kate Prior is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.