So now that we’ve established that a significant number of women in science suffer from imposter syndrome (including me), and that imposter syndrome is potentially contributing to the attrition of women from science, what do we do about it?
For me, the key to starting to overcome imposter syndrome was realizing that there were other people like me. Women who, for no apparent reason, thought that they were frauds. It was truly eye-opening. And a relief! I wasn’t crazy—other people thought this way, too! Or rather, maybe I was crazy but I was crazy in a specific way just the same as lots of other women. It can be profoundly comforting to know that you are not alone in your deepest, darkest fears. And once I had that realization, I could talk to other people about my feelings of self-doubt and my fears of people discovering I wasn’t as capable as they thought I was. My talking about how I felt opened the door to other people talking about how they felt and I knew the women I was talking to were pretty smart. These strong, capable, intelligent women were scared that they weren’t really all that strong, capable, or intelligent. Once I saw how profoundly their self-perceptions were warped, I was able to think that just maybe my own self-perception was a little bit off-base. Maybe I wasn’t secretly a dunderhead. Maybe I really was as smart as I appeared to be on paper. Maybe, just maybe, I was selling myself a little bit short.
So, from my own experiences, I think one of the most powerful things we can do is to talk to other women about imposter syndrome. Let other women know that such a thing exists. Of course, not every woman suffers from imposter syndrome (my friend, R, for example). But even if you don’t feel like telling other people about your own insecurities, you can at least talk about the problem of imposter syndrome. You can at least make other people aware. You can at least give other people a name to what it is that they are feeling.
You can also recognize your own feelings as disconnected from reality. Start acknowledging your accomplishments. Learn to say these words:
The next time someone says to you, “Wow, you must be smart,” (this often happens to me after I say that I’m in graduate school for cell biology and frankly, it embarrasses me) do not demure (like I usually, do—hey, it’s a work in progress!) say, “Thank you.” You ARE smart. Stupid people do not get to where you are in life. If someone says to you, “Great work on that experiment,” after you just spent the last 3 weeks working 18 hours a day troubleshooting a procedure and the whole thing culminated in a heroic experiment in which you did not sleep for 24 hours, do not say, “It was nothing.” It was NOT nothing. It was SOMETHING! It was a very big something and it took a helluva lot of time and effort and chutzpa and you should be proud. Instead of saying it was nothing, say, “Thank you.” It’s just two words, it should not be so hard to say them.
Give encouragement to the women around you. Clance and O’Toole (1) found that men often felt like they were frauds, but this did not keep them from advancing in their studies and careers. Clance and O’Toole speculated that this may be because these men received encouragement from peers, from mentors, from society in general to continue despite their fears. Imagine how much easier it would be to keep on advancing if you had someone encouraging you every step of the way. Imagine how much easier it would be to overcome your fears if there was someone telling you, “You can do it.”
And finally, be kind to yourself. Tell yourself that you are intelligent, that you earned your accomplishments fairly. Tell yourself that you deserve the good position you find yourself in. Imagine how much you could accomplish if YOU told YOURSELF, “You can do it!” Look yourself in the mirror and say,
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
(1) Clance, PR and O’Toole MA (1988). “The Imposter Phenomenon: An Internal Barrier To Empowerment and Achievement.” Women and Therapy.
This paper can be found here (PDF). It includes an “Imposter Phenomenon Quiz” which you can take if you really want to. The authors suggest that a person scoring 60 or above is suffering from Imposter Phenomenon. I scored 83. Clearly I still have some work to do!