My last post struck a chord with many. I was rather overwhelmed by the response, both in direct comments on the post and through the more ephemeral form of twitter. Two aspects particularly struck me:
- The reaction ‘I thought I was the only person who felt like this’ is not uncommon. That is why it is so valuable for the feeling to be discussed widely, so it can be treated as what it is: if not the ‘normal’ human condition, at least a very common one.
- Men were more than willing to put their hands up and say ‘me too’, although I will qualify this statement below.
I was pointed in the direction of a selection of other excellent articles on impostor syndrome by various readers, including articles by two men, indeed two theoretical astrophysicists, though I’m not going to draw any conclusions from that disciplinary concentration: Peter Coles from Cardiff on his Telescoper blog and Ed Bertschinger of MIT on the Women in Astronomy blog. The latter clearly devotes a considerable effort to diversity issues at MIT; the former pointed out that he had felt an impostor from a very early age, although it wasn’t entirely clear if his current position that luck plays the most enormous part in success demonstrates he has or has not shed his fears about being ‘found out’ (the importance of luck in success is a topic I have written about before).
I think those people who tend to feel massively handicapped by the feeling, are those for whom it is permanently to the fore and who find it a crippling burden preventing them from fulfilling their potential. These people probably cannot be helped by the discovery that other people feel the same way, they need more directed supportive routes to help them overcome their fears. Rita’s post , which she drew to my attention, highlights the balance between the assumption of skill leading to deserved success and luck (in which case the success is undeserved); she definined the syndrome:
as a state of mind in which one does not attribute their own success to their own ability, but rather to luck, chance or clever trickery.
I don’t want to go on discussing the syndrome per se. Nor will I explore its intriguing partner in crime (which I hadn’t come across before it appeared in the comments) the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which lesser mortals overestimate their competence – a phenomenon that is most certainly not unknown in academia. The responses demonstrate clearly that for many people impostor syndrome kicks in early (possibly when a student) and is likely never to go completely away. But I want to return to my original question about whether men who feel the effect might be prepared to stand up and talk about it, like the women I mentioned in the previous post, and if not why not.
There is no doubt that many men were prepared to acknowledge that they suffered from impostor syndrome but (and this was even more apparent in the tweets I received), many of them had never before admitted to these feelings. I hope it doesn’t feel like attending an AA meeting and standing up for the first time to say ‘I’m an impostor’, but possibly the explicit acknowledgement that the anxiety exists inside one is cathartic; I’d like to think that those who responded didn’t feel the worse for doing so! The statistics quoted by Bertschinger from the work of Margot Gerritsen demonstrated that 43% of males surveyed and 62% of females surveyed “often or always” think “I’m afraid to be found out”. So the majority of women studied felt like this, but slightly less than half the men (this work was predominantly studying engineers and earth scientists, with 80 male and 140 female respondents). If these values are typical, it is clearly pretty common across the (scientific) population. These responses were clearly not of identifiable individuals. Those of you who responded here and over twitter, on the other hand, were making a much more public statement but not in a way to enable me to produce any statistics. Only two men and one woman suggested they did not feel this way, but the responses were probably self-selecting and, given that the post has had well over 2000 hits, only a tiny proportion of people who read the post expressed an opinion at all.
Where should men express their anxieties? I hadn’t really appreciated this before, despite it being rather obvious now it’s been pointed out, but although there are plenty of university support groups and development activities of one kind or another for women in science, there are not so many for ‘scientists’ (of both genders) let alone for men. My own university actually does run a personal development programme for men working within the university called Navigator, which I believe is part of a national programme; this ought to be a good place for these sort of discussions to take place, but I’ve no idea if it does. The sister Springboard course (i.e. the equivalent one for women) certainly does have slots for external speakers to come in and talk about their lives, the kind of talks about life in general that I referred to in the previous post when senior women had indeed broached the subject of impostor syndrome. So, in my own university, in principle, there would be a place for men to hear about and discuss the effect. And, since I received a tweet from Cambridge colleague David Spiegelhalter saying that, not only does he suffer from impostor syndrome but that he would be willing to stand up in front of an audience of men to say so, it looks like there is an obvious candidate to take this forward here if such a meeting were to be organised.
Now David, as the (in my eyes at least) hugely successful and influential Winton Professor of the Public Perception of Risk, should know precisely what the risk of reputational damage might be by making such a statement. And that there is a risk associated with it was highlighted in a tweet from the Tory Peer (and one-time physicist) Ralph Lucas, who said apropos of politics
Admission does not work well in male hierarchies. Reputational damage probable, certain death if politician.
So maybe academia is actually a more forgiving environment than some; I don’t fear – nor apparently does David – reputational damage by admitting to this particular weakness, but I can see a cabinet minister, indeed any MP, might. It’s interesting that Lord Lucas refers to politics as a ‘male’ hierarchy, rather than simply a hierarchy. This is a point rather reinforced by another tweet from Ciarán Mc Mahon in Ireland
Those interested in increasing women in the Dáil should read Athene Donald on the
Politics clearly has a way to go.
Another tweet (from graduate student Frank Leibfarth), raised the question about emotional honesty:
The real issue is that lack of emotional honesty in scientific research. It should not be taboo to talk about your feelings.
This probably should be read in conjunction with the comment from Chemistry professor Klaas Wynne, who said rather controversially
Having “feelings” is for girls.
I can’t agree with Klaas, because feelings cover a whole gamut of emotions. I suspect that he, and many men, wouldn’t consider anger a ‘feeling’, or contempt or annoyance or….many other things that would probably be considered acceptable by a typical alpha male (or indeed alpha female), those who thump the table or raise their voice to get their way. But these are of course ‘feelings’, just nice, safe stereotypically ‘male’ ones, unlike those inconvenient ones attributed to women, who may express weakness or fear or be sympathetic. I have written before here and here about the gendered way words are used and interpreted. I fear Klaas’s comment is just an extreme version. Good luck to him for not suffering from impostor syndrome, but he should be wary of assuming it is simply for the ‘weaker sex’ (horrible phrase). I am much more on the side of Frank and his belief that feelings should have a place in the way we conduct scientific research.
If it isn’t the kiss of death to admit to the weakness of impostor syndrome, if, on the contrary, it is seen as a constructive thing for a senior man or a woman to do to encourage the up and coming researchers by expressing their own anxieties, then a different matter comes to mind: do we need to do a better job of support systems for everyone, men and women. Many a time I have heard it said that ‘activities that help people in general, help women disproportionately’ and this idea underpins many of the actions to support women in science. But maybe we should on this occasion invert this, and say that activities that are shown to support women, may – and should – benefit many men too. Academia, or any profession (and I should point out that many responses I received clearly came from people outside academia – not just from politics either) should not just be suitable for those people who really are tough all the way through, possibly surging with testosterone, possibly suffering from Dunning-Kruger syndrome; there are many men as well as women who are not like that, and some more talking shops for people in general to express anxieties and look for support might prove useful. In other words, not only do men suffer from impostor syndrome in significant numbers, but maybe they need to push for more activities for them that don’t just involve banter and a pint or two after work down the pub.