This past week reminded me of the seeming ubiquity of impostor syndrome, even in the visibly successful and apparently supremely confident. Or at least, this statement is true as it pertains to women. One outcome of what follows is I would love to know whether the same state of mind is a permanent undercurrent for males too.
Impostor syndrome, in case you do not recognize its name, is that feeling that you don’t belong, that you are only where you are through some clerical or other error and that one day, probably soon, you will be FOUND OUT. In other words, you are an impostor and the unmasking – with its consequent inevitable embarrassments and humiliation – is just around the corner. I only discovered the name for this state of mind a few years ago, although the feelings were very familiar. As far as I recall it was Vivienne Parry who introduced me to the concept, in a talk she gave at a Woman’s Forum meeting in Cambridge. She was the guest speaker, talking to an audience of several hundred about how she had built a successful career in journalism and the media based on what she saw as her fairly modest qualifications. Having once come across the phenomenon, I quickly found others who suffered from the same anxieties.
The next one who publicly spoke about it at an event I attended was my erstwhile Vice Chancellor from Cambridge, anthropologist Alison Richard. She and I were engaged in a dialogue (in front of an audience of young female researchers) about our careers and the issues we felt we had had to face as we attempted to balance work and family life in order to make progress in the male dominated worlds we each moved in. Alison pointed out that when she had first got her letter confirming her place at Cambridge as an undergraduate at Newnham College all those years ago, she had assumed the letter had only been sent to her by accident, clear manifestation of the syndrome. If you want to hear a different conversation along these lines, there is a podcast of an event the Royal Society held in early 2009 on the occasion of Linda Partridge giving the Royal Society’s Croonian Prize lecture (about her work on the biology of ageing), the first woman to do so. This involved Linda and myself – and indeed Vivienne Parry as chair/facilitator – discussing our lives and how we’d got to where we are: impostor syndrome featured quite early on in this exchange of ideas as you can hear for yourself on the podcast. As Linda said, for a long time she thought she was the only person to have such fears. The reality seems to be that impostor syndrome is very common. It is important that early career researchers know this, so that they do not let it take over their lives.
Last week, as I say I was reminded of these prior events and the frequent intrusion of the topic of impostor syndrome into talks about ‘life’, not having thought about it for a while. L’Oreal hosted a lunch for previous winners of their FWIS fellowships together with various senior female scientists in their capacity as ‘friends’, to celebrate the FWIS fellowship scheme: the 2012 competition is to be launched on February 1st . It was an appropriately joyful occasion (washed down with plenty of alcohol, not always a good thing at lunchtime), and this year’s winner of the L’Oreal/UNESCO FWIS Laureate for Europe, physiologist Frances Ashcroft from Oxford, gave a brief and excellent talk about her research on Type I diabetes in newborns, as well as thoughts about being a senior woman in science. Frances and I were, as it happens, Cambridge undergraduates together at Girton College back in the days when it was an all-women’s college. We lost touch with each other for many years until we found ourselves elected to the Royal Society on the same day in 1999 – a place I would suspect, neither of us expected to find ourselves when we had first known each other.
Her description of her work on diabetes was elegant and simple enough for me – and I would assume the other non-specialists in the room – to get a feel for what she had discovered, her passion for scientific enquiry and her determination to challenge the received wisdom when it didn’t add up was manifest. But, once again, here was a senior woman scientist prepared to stand up and say that, deep down, she constantly expected to be shown to be a fraud. In her case the situation was compounded by a supervisor early in her life saying to her that she would never make it as a scientist. Perhaps that was just the spur she needed: there is nothing like a bit of opposition to raise hackles, but also energy levels, as long as you don’t let it consume your soul.
Frances Ashcroft, Linda Partridge, Vivienne Parry and Alison Richard all share the same fears and yet all have succeeded spectacularly in their chosen spheres. Furthermore, we (and I’d include myself here) all feel – when asked to talk about our lives – this need to be honest about these fears. I know, because many younger women have said so to me after my own talks, that it is very powerful to hear us express these fears, that it empowers them because they realise that what they themselves feel can be lived with and need not lead to paralysis through the exercise of this fear. (This is a point well made in a recent post by Sarah Kendrew). They are not alone in feeling this way, although if no one points this out it is only too easy to feel as if you are. Individuals may never be able to overcome it, but it is not terminal unless one allows it to be so and in general it should not be regarded as a ‘syndrome’ in the medical sense of the word. This is certainly a case of ‘feel the fear and do it anyhow’.
What intrigues me is this. I have named here several very senior women (including myself) who have all been willing to stand up and say ‘I suffer from impostor syndrome’ in public (predominantly, but not entirely, to audiences made up of women). I am just listing a few occasions when I have been present, therefore, by extrapolation, it probably happens pretty often. What about men? The evidence (for some slightly scientific evidence see here) is that they suffer from it too, though possibly a smaller proportion of them do so, but how many would be willing to stand up in front of an audience and say so? I’m curious about this. Is it a feeling that men recognize? How willing are they to talk about it, or does it make them feel too uncomfortable? Perhaps far fewer men than women are aware of it? Maybe successful and inspirational men are happy to talk about it in front of an audience of males, but of course I don’t attend such events so I couldn’t know. Or is it the case that the men in the audience wouldn’t react to any such admission in the overwhelmingly positive way women appear to do, hence the topic is avoided? I do know I’ve never heard such a point of view expressed by them in public, but that may reflect the nature of events for women that I attend and which don’t have obvious parallels for men or mixed audiences in the sciences. My belief is that the phenomenon is ubiquitous, across ages, genders and disciplines. So, answers please!
Update February 5 2012 In the light of all the responses, the next post looks further at this problem, with more of an emphasis on men’s reaction.