Kate Bahn

PhD in Economics at LadyEconomist.com

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Faking It: Women, Academia, and Impostor Syndrome

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Impostor syndrome—the feeling that, regardless of your accomplishments, you’re still about to be unmasked as a fraud—is an all-too-common affliction among academics. Ironically, it’s the successful who tend to suffer from it: In order to feel like you’re faking it, you need to have already reached a certain level in your discipline. Think of it as a twisted version of the Socratic paradox—the more you know, the more you feel like you know nothing.

We’ve been talking about this phenomenon, and its consequences, for a while. The term itself, in fact, dates back to 1978—when a pair of psychologists, writing in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, identified “the impostor phenomenon in high-achieving women.”

The topic is telling. While both men and women experience impostor syndrome, women are far more susceptible. Given the messages of inadequacy that many women have internalized throughout their lives, it’s hardly surprising that many of us are wondering if we can hack it. Recently, I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Instead of coming away feeling inspired, I felt unnerved: “Can I really do all of this? Can I be a successful professional woman?” Images of those hyper-successful and well-rounded women who have succeeded can make the rest of us moderately-successful women feel inadequate.

What’s alarming is that the more education and professional skills women acquire, the less confident we seem to feel. Witness a recent survey of undergraduates at Boston College, which showed that female students finished college with lower self-esteem than they started with. Male students, on the other hand, graduated with greater self-confidence (albeit lower GPAs) than their female peers.

What’s to blame for that divergence? The survey’s findings point to “the pressure to look or dress a certain way” and “the hookup culture” as major contributors. Which makes sense: It’s no secret that women face tougher beauty standards than men do. And if a female student feels insecure about her looks, that may leave her feeling less confident in other areas, including the classroom.

I’d venture to say that this dynamic doesn’t go away in graduate school. And these pressures, modified for a more professional setting, continue further up the academic ladder. When packing for academic conferences, I’ve spent more time than I’d care to admit trying to find that perfect outfit that adheres to professional standards, but isn’t too frumpy or too risqué.

That’s not to say I favor the gender-neutral standard of ill-fitting grey pantsuits that’s in vogue in my mostly male discipline; I’d just rather not to have to worry that I’m being judged on the length of my skirt, or whether my hair is up or down, instead of my intellect. In her book, Wonder Woman: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College’s president, Debora Spar, calculated the amount of time she spends on self-care just to meet the excessive societal expectations for women. (Spoiler alert: It’s considerable.) I’d wager money that her male peers, and mine, don’t spend anywhere near that much time on their looks, nor do they feel much pressure to do so. Sadly, though, it’s another hurdle women must jump through just to step into the game, even in academia.

Ridiculous beauty standards aside, female students may also face real obstacles to being heard in the classroom. In college seminar courses, where students are expected to debate and discuss what they’re learning and participation often counts toward their grade, female students may come to feel unwelcome if male students are allowed to interrupt and dominate discussions, as studies show males are wont to do (sorry, guys). Anyone who’s ever attended a Ph.D. or law seminar knows what I mean.

Unfortunately, even well-intentioned and fair-minded professors may inadvertently reinforce outdated gender norms by praising or calling on men more than women. Those cues, if they occur often enough, can shake female students’ intellectual confidence and signal to them that their contributions aren’t as valued as those of their louder (and ruder) male peers.

As women progress through college, grad school, and their careers, these daily inequities can easily add up. And that can undermine women’s professional performance on everything from job applications to salary negotiations; it can even hurt their tenure prospects. For example, studies have shown that women generally apply only to those jobs for which they’re totally qualified, whereas men tend to have no compunction about applying if they meet some, but not all, of a job’s requirements. Women are less likely to tout their own research and more likely to be saddled with excessive service commitments than men are, too.

And is it any wonder women often have a harder time negotiating when they’re not only fighting a “negotiation double standard,” to borrow a phrase from Slate’s Katy Waldman, but also their own self-doubts? If we downplay our achievements and question our own abilities and worth, then how can we expect hirers, colleagues, publishers, and tenure-and-promotion committees to recognize them?

On the bright side, impostor syndrome may drive some people to work so hard that they succeed in spite of their chronic self-doubts, assuming they don’t burn out first. For the rest of us, though, the first step to kicking our feelings of inadequacy may be recognizing where they come from and talking about them. As Robin Fleming, chair of the history department at Boston College, said of her institution’s survey: There’s a “kind of solidarity” in knowing that maybe you aren’t “the only person who [feels] that way.”

That’s where support groups can help. Feminist groups can bolster women’s self-esteem by providing safe spaces for discussion and affirmation that yes, they do belong in academia. In fact, a number of female academics from my own economics program meet occasionally to discuss our experiences. There are stories of being talked over in the classroom; of feeling uncomfortable speaking up in seminars while our male colleagues ask even the most inane questions without hesitation; of our advisors launching uncomfortable inquiries into our personal lives; of how our academic schedules affect our romantic lives. And through this, we support and encourage one another as women to acknowledge our academic achievements and our place in our program. We call ourselves the Economisses.

Likeminded confederations—like the Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon group, which draws attention to the important contributions of women in academia—can help women recognize and promote their own accomplishments on a personal and professional level.

But fighting impostor syndrome goes beyond that. If you’re a teacher, for example, it’s worth thinking about how you can change the culture around you.

Professors can make a concerted effort in the classroom to note the contributions of female students and encourage them to speak up. (I, for one, always appreciate it when a professor says, “We haven’t heard from any women yet.” This practice not only draws attention to the role of gender in the classroom, but also explicitly lets women know that they are, in fact, welcome.)

And as a professor, you can make a surprising difference just by opening up about your own academic insecurities. Talk frankly with your students about how you overcame doubts or are still working to overcome them. Knowing that professors feel like fakers from time to time, too, might help the rest of us feel a little less self-conscious—and a little more like we belong.

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  • "It’s no secret that women face tougher beauty standards than men do."

    Or is it that we are more open about how we judge women physically?

    (I'm also unsure why this has to be a competition. Can't we just say that there is a lot of social pressure for *people* to meet beauty standards, and that this can have adverse psychological effects on those being judged?)

    Alex Parrish
    Alex Parrish
  • We do judge women more harshly with regard to their appearance, as the author states. In order for us to truly improve the situation we must admit that these things happen as well as the adverse psychological effects.

    Matthew McCullough
    Matthew McCullough
  • As a woman who has succeeded at gaining tenure, I will tell you that I saw many fall by the way, for many reasons. When I got into graduate school, I immediately noticed how the publish/perish milieu and pecking order of tenure track hierarchy is not really set up for female success: I saw other women dropping out to get jobs to support families or have them. When I got into the job market myself, I noticed that men would often have built in support systems: their wives would move with them to a job location, uprooting their families even with small children; I went through a divorce when my own spouse refused to relocate, and I've seen the chilling effect such lack of support has on pursuit of tenure. Many women will opt for sticking to a partner's job locale rather than rock the boat. My own spouse refused to help with my bills from student loans, so you can see the end of that story--he gave me no choice. I've also seen the female spouses of male faculty give up careers to help their husbands, becoming their husbands' administrative assistants and arranging their travel, juggling duties at home with their children, and working jobs that could accommodate the often non-accommodating duties of the one on tenure or tenure track. I've noticed a large number of divorced women in my department in a number of schools I've encountered, as well. As difficult as the job already is, schedules and expectations that are not always family friendly, and women often do not get the choices that men get. As a matter of fairness, it may also be true that women are not encouraged into going to graduate school as much as men are, especially in the sciences, but overall, when we do get into grad school, we are often hampered by having to choose between our personal lives and our professional ones. I can't speak for the experiences of all women, but I see it happen a lot.

    Shari Powers
    Shari Powers
  • Okay, being a graduate student is a nervous-making state, and insecurity is probably characteristic for most graduate students. This might be aggravated at the New School, where the world is a result of oppressors and exploiters, and their victims. But still: to assert that "While both men and women experience impostor syndrome, women are far more susceptible" with no evidence, no substantiation, is really sub-par. The general picture presented, that men float through life with inflated egos, while women suffer both discrimination and self-doubt, is, well, a bit one sided. However, I am glad to hear that women do not judge men by physical attractiveness, and that in sexual relations men get by scot-free in the hook-up culture. Being a man is such heaven!

    PhilipCarl SALZMAN
    PhilipCarl SALZMAN
  • I recently recorded an interview with a retiring professor who had published numerous scholarly books and articles. He confessed that he still has nightmares of being outted as an imposter. So while the problem isn't just with women, it is somewhat comforting to know that others suffer from it as well.

    Misha Griffith
    Misha Griffith
  • "Can't we just say that there is a lot of social pressure for *people* to meet beauty standards."
    Nope. Middle-aged man here, never had a single iota of pressure to meet beauty standards in professional situations, not in my 20s, 30s, 40s or now. I guess I'm expected to wash my hair and use deodorant, and I often get a haircut before graduation so as not to alarm the parents, but my morning routine takes very little time. No one cares about the graying and thinning of my hair, or about my middle-aged weight gain. Anyone who thinks it's an equal playing field is completely delusional.

    Jim O\'Hara
    Jim O\'Hara
  • Anyone who has depended upon things like affirmative action, informal quotas, preferential hiring policies or who used or could have used the threat of a formal complaint about job discrimination probably has a reason to worry about how they got their job. This is a burden that white men don't have and in today's academic world they had better be very good and pass a number of ideological litmus tests or they won't get hired. For a university or a department to be able to claim a high number of female faculty is a plus for them. Given a choice between a man and a woman of equal merits there are strong pressures to hire the woman.

    This sounds heretical and contrary to conventional thinking but if you stop and think about it, it's true. It’s a complete turn-around from the situation that existed 30 years ago. The drive to bring more women into the academic world long ago went into overdrive and has acquired the nature of a cause or crusade with the intimidating backing of the federal government and feminist lobbies. Many women have a good reason to wonder if they would have their jobs if they were not women, and this is a strong factor in creating the "imposter syndrome."

    I have had white male friends give up on an academic career for precisely this reason. It’s far more competitive for men to acquire an academic job when women or minorities with even mediocre credentials are applying. The drive to appear socially “progressive” and politically correct works against them at many institutions. The playing field has been tipped to their disadvantage. If they make it, on the other hand, it’s because they were qualified on their academic merits and they were strong enough to overcome the new gender bias. They have no reason to think of themselves as impostors.

    Laird Wilcox
    Laird Wilcox
  • I am a 59y old low status male first generation graduate and PhD. I am Australian of somewhat indefinite racial origin but in the US I was taken as a "pass".
    I have twice been told that I was the best applicant for an academic job in a country not Australia or USA. In both cases I was not short-listed or interviewed because they had to appoint a woman and/or minority. I have never applied for jobs there ever again.
    What Laird WILCOX says is depressingly true. Try life as an adjunct with female/minority bosses who obviously are not as bright as you are and your students know it.
    The situation is not new. When I was a PhD student a female colleague of mine told me that it was unlikely that I would ever get an academic position because "I scared people @#$%less". She was right. I got my first permanent position at the tender age of 59 in SE-Asia.
    Is having biology classes >75% female and >85% in the case of biochemistry and microbiology an advance? I think not. One thing I repeatedly comment about is that you cannot find good male undergraduate students or graduate students in the biological sciences. It is not hard to work out why. It starts in school. My female colleagues complain that their daughters are given all the encouragment in the world in the humanities and sciences, their sons are told to go outside and play.

    Raymond Ritchie
    Raymond Ritchie
  • "Middle-aged man here, never had a single iota of pressure to meet beauty standards in professional situations, not in my 20s, 30s, 40s or now."


    You've never worked out at the gym? You've never bought a nice suit for an interview? You've never shaved? You've never felt compelled to wear gender-specific clothing? You're covered in piercings and face tattoos? Your hair is three bright colors?

    Just because you've bought in to the professional gender norms of middle-class society does not mean they cease to exist. You are absolutely being judged by people, based on your appearance, every day of your life.

    Alex Parrish
    Alex Parrish
  • I call BS too, but on Alex Parrish.

    It's amazing how people (i.e. Alex) think they know more about a person's life and situation than that person does. Like Jim, I've never felt compelled to meet beauty standards; I don't work out often, but when I do it's because I feel like I probably should for my own health, not to look good. I have piercings. I don't have any hair but I'd probably do all sorts of mad things with it if I did.

    Now here's the big flaw with your reasoning about suits and shaving: I feel compelled to shave occasionally and wear a suit when it's professionally appropriate - but that has absolutely nothing to do with my gender. I don't feel compelled to dress up, or do my hair (if I had any), or wear makeup every day to go to the lab, but most of my female counterparts do. Don't confuse professionalism / personal hygiene with gender-specific pressures.

    You're right that we're all being judged to an extent on our appearance, but by saying that you've completely missed the point of the article. This is about the extra, unnecessary pressures female academics have to look 'pretty', just to get a look-in. Sure, some guys in western society do feel pressures to look good every day, but we're talking specifically about academia, where - let's face it - most guys don't.

    FYI Philip - there is a *lot* of evidence that female academics experience impostor syndrome to a greater extent than men. Google scholar "impostor syndrom women" and you'll see what I mean.

    Bob Bobson
    Bob Bobson
  • Feminist bleeding heart, reverse discriminatory, male minimizing, rubbish. The standard boohoo. Poor girls. 

    jimmy twotimes
    jimmy twotimes