The deep roots of impostor syndrome

Women with maskImpostor syndrome is widespread amongst women and can have a negative effect on their careers. Where does it start, and what can we do about it?

“I don’t belong here. I’m a fraud. I’ve tricked my way into my position, and it’s only a matter of time before someone finds me out.”

Unless by some small chance you happen to be a professional con artist, the above is likely not true. But those kinds of thoughts will strike a chord with around seven out of ten people reading this.

“With every good grade I was afraid that I didn’t deserve it, and had somehow fooled the examiners,” said Daniela, a physics PhD at the University of Sussex, who first experienced anxiety during her bachelor’s degree. It only intensified during her master’s.

“The feeling of not being good enough, not living up to the expectations and having managed to trick my application committee for the PhD into believing I was good enough was overwhelming. I’m a really self-critical person, and with those feelings on top I felt like crying from frustration and doubt after ever single little thing I didn’t understand.”

Daniela’s experience is far from unique: many people feel like they don’t deserve their status or success, that someone is going to find them out. This feeling was termed imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon, back in the 1980s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes.

It can affect anyone but seems particularly prevalent in women: a recent survey found that 95% of women in academia have experienced it at some point. And there’s no milestone of success you can reach that grants immunity from these feelings. Indeed, the better you do the worse it can get, as Daniela found as she progressed with her career in science.

“This went so far, even outside work, that I was afraid to fall into depression. This led me to being really closed up and hesitant about asking questions, afraid that an ‘obviously stupid’ question could make everyone realise that I didn’t belong”

Apart from causing significant distress to individuals, imposter syndrome can have dramatic knock-on effects. People with imposter syndrome are less likely to apply for jobs, and it may be the reason women are more hesitant to ask for a pay rise. It has even been suggested a possible cause of the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’, with women being much more likely than men to leave careers in STEM.

Many people experience imposter syndrome for the first time at university, with feelings of inadequacy often increasing over careers. So where does it come from, and why does it seem to affect women more than men? Research is now showing that the seeds are sown much, much earlier than we thought.

A study from the University of Illinois managed to pinpoint the exact age girls start to disassociate being female with being clever. When five-year-olds are told about a ‘really, really smart’ individual, and asked to pick them out from a picture of two men and two women, they overwhelmingly associate intelligence with their own gender. But, by ages six and seven, only the boys remained more likely to pick their own gender. The girls seemed to lose this connection with their own sex and brilliance. The researchers also found older girls were less likely to want to play games that were described as for ‘really, really smart children’.

It’s worth noting that girls persistently outperform boys in their school grades at these ages.

From then on, the two genders continue to diverge. A recent survey found that, while 12-year-old boys and girls tend to have similar levels of confidence, puberty causes female confidence to drop considerably more than their male contemporaries.

It’s less clear what is driving these changes. Are women biologically doomed to be filled with self-doubt, or is society slowly squeezing the confidence out of them? Or could it be that women are just more accurate with self-assessment, while men never lose the unearned confidence of a toddler?

There’s evidence that parents are more likely to think their sons are intellectually gifted than their daughters. One study found that teachers gave higher test scores in maths to students with male names, and others have shown teachers spend more time speaking to male students, and are more likely to interrupt girls.

This, alongside media which, putting it kindly, doesn’t always represent women for their intellect, can slowly leech into children’s ideas of their gender’s abilities. Should we be surprised then, when women who are successful question if they’ve somehow played the system?

And what about our biological differences in the brain? Here, evidence is slippery and contradictory, but so far no strong evidence exists to suggest this is an innate, biological difference.

There is some good news. A number of surveys report that female confidence matches men’s by their 40s, and eventually even surpasses them by their 60s. Unfortunately, that’s still over two decades of someone’s working life being hampered by low confidence. And what’s worse – when women do show the same levels of confidence as men, they’re perceived as less likable and employable in what’s termed the backlash effect. Just examine some of the criticism of the US women’s football team, repeatedly labeled as arrogant during the 2019 World Cup for their confident celebrations after victories.

While this may all seem a bit depressing, for people like Daniela there are ways of managing imposter syndrome.

“What I found worked for me and helped immensely is talking openly about it with people I trust. Usually it turns out that a lot of other people have thoughts like that [but] we often only see the successful and effortless-seeming side of the story, not the hard work, struggle and doubt behind our colleagues”.

Imposter syndrome can be minimised by talking about it with people, making regular checks on your own achievements – strengthening the parts of your brain that recognise your self worth. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also be employed to help with coping mechanisms.

But what about nipping these internalised thoughts in the bud, seeing as women start to doubt themselves and their gender as young as six? This is harder. No parent would ever admit to underestimating their daughters’ intelligence because of gender. It’s an unconscious bias deeply rooted in our entire society.

But there are things you can do to try and check these biases. Teachers, whether their students are six or 26, can make sure that female students are encouraged to ask and answer questions. Parents, or grownups meeting children, can make sure they compliment girls on things other than their looks. And the more brilliant women children see, in life or in fiction, the more likely they are to think “that could be me”, and less likely, once they reach their dreams, to think “this can’t be right”.

By Georgia Mills. 

Georgia Mills is a freelance science writer and podcast producer. She likes good wine, bad films and ugly dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @georgiamills2.

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