So, how is it that a person can be a scientist, someone who forms opinions, ideas, theories based on facts and can, in the face of overwhelming proof to the contrary, believe that she is stupid? Good question. This is exactly what my friend, R, wanted to know. She had to accept that such a thing was possible because she had seven people telling her they thought in exactly that way, but she just didn’t understand how it could happen.
I’m not sure I understand either. Certainly I believe low self-esteem plays a role somehow. That much seems obvious. In the paper by Clance and Imes (1) describing Imposter Phenomenon, the authors suggest that a woman suffering from imposter syndrome typically falls into one of two categories:
1. She grew up in the household where another sibling was “the intelligent one” even though she consistently out-performed that sibling.
2. She was told while growing up that she was precocious, that she did things effortlessly, AND that smart people don’t study until she somehow got the impression that if you have to make an effort, you are not smart.
However, I don’t see myself fitting in very well with either of those two groups, though I am often guilty of thinking that how hard you work is inversely correlated with how intelligent you are (2). If anything, I was considered “the intelligent one” growing up but I certainly wasn’t told that I was precocious or a natural genius or anything like that. However, I have had problems with low self-esteem and low self-confidence (and have had years of therapy to determine where these things came from and it certainly wasn’t from people telling me I’m brilliant).
Anecdotaly, in talking to the other female members of my lab and other women, it seems that many things can contribute to the belief that you are an imposter and low self-confidence is related to these things. Some women say that it is the apparently high self-confidence of the men that they work with that leads them to believe they are less bright and not deserving of their achievements. If you thought that you were genuinely smart, wouldn’t you boast about it (though this suffers from a “chicken or egg” problem–do these women feel that they are not smarter because they don’t boast about their accomplishments or do they not boast about their accomplishments because they feel they are not really smart?). Other women say that they got so used to professors dismissing them in favor of their male colleagues that they started to believe that they must not be as smart. This reason has the ring of truth to it for me. It is no secret that women are often marginalized in the sciences and being consistently marginalized has to have an effect on how you view your own worth.
Whatever the reason, imposter syndrome has negative consequences for the woman involved. First, of course, there are the psychological problems that accompany thinking that you are a fraud. It’s emotionally stressful to be constantly afraid you will be outed as an idiot, that any day you may lose your job or get kicked out of school. Having high levels of anxiety can keep you from performing your best, and reinforce the belief that you are a phony. On top of that, women with imposter syndrome may stop short of achieving all that they can. In Part I, I wondered whether imposter syndrome was related to the attrition of women as you climb to higher levels of science. According to Clance and O’Toole, this does seem to be the case (3). Women suffering from imposter syndrome do not take opportunities to advance their careers. They don’t follow their dreams, perhaps because they are too afraid or perhaps because they feel they are not qualified for the positions their hearts desire.
But why does it seem to primarily affect women? Why are women more prone to thinking they are frauds? Clance and O’Toole suggest that other factors affecting women complicate the issue. Women are often not encouraged in their career choices the same way men are. Women more keenly feel a conflict between their careers and their and families. These also have the ring of truth in them for me. In some ways, I think the desire for a family is used as an excuse for abandoning a goal that I don’t believe that I can actually achieve. And while I was never actually discouraged from following my career path, I was never actually encouraged, either. There’s no one standing there telling me that I should pursue a career in science, that I should finish my PhD. On the contrary, lately I’ve mostly heard that they would still love me if I quit! Whether that would be different if I was male, I have no idea.
So, now that we know that there are a substantial number of women out there who believe that they are somehow faking their way to success, what do we do about it?
(1) Clance, PR and Imes, S (1978) “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice Volume 15, #3.
(2) I know there is no logic to this, but there often is no logic to the feelings buried deep down in my soul.
(3) Clance, PR and O’Toole MA (1988). “The Imposter Phenomenon: An Internal Barrier To Empowerment and Achievement.” Women and Therapy. (I’m sorry, but I don’t have the full citation for this article, having downloaded as a pdf from here (PDF). Even more egregiously, they cite another work for this data which I was unable to obtain and therefore cannot cite it properly.)
Note: When I started this series of posts, I had intended to simply discuss my own feelings and that of my labmates and my own opinions of how these feelings arose. However, I found myself wanting look for more information about Imposter Phenomenon and what research was being done on the subject. If I had the time, I would dig into this further and find more recent articles and so on, but 1) I’m currently in California visiting my husband and I think he’s already confused about why I’m blogging instead of spending time with him (I’m a little confused about it as well, actually) and 2) I want to get these out in time to submit for Scientiae. But, I’m sufficiently intrigued by this subject that I may write more about it at a later time when I have the full resources of a university library available to me.