Men Feel the Fear Too (but what do they do with it?)

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 #impostorsyndrome

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.





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11 Responses to Men Feel the Fear Too (but what do they do with it?)

  1. Physicalist says:

    I think this a really valuable discussion to have. My wife and I (both academics) have discussed our “imposter” feelings with each other, but neither of us would discuss this anywhere that colleagues might hear us (after all, if *we* don’t think we’re up to grade, our colleagues might just decide we’re right).

    One point I thought worth adding is that Richard Feynman discussed being crippled by imposter syndrome at one point (I think it might be in _Surely You’re Joking_). He felt like he could never live up the expectations of his new position, and it wasn’t until he was offered an even more outrageously attractive position that the pressure lifted (because at that point he figured that it wasn’t *his* fault that people had such ridiculously high expectations of him).

  2. Klaas Wynne says:

    I think you are taking my “having ‘feelings’ is for girls” comment a bit far. Even I have feelings: believe it or not, I cry (there are witnesses…) when I see something dramatic in a movie or read a moving story in the newspaper. However, I do think that you have to deal with whatever life throws at you. Feeling like an imposter seems quite silly and self-indulgent to me. Surely, life as a researcher can be hard. For example, I had five research proposals in a row rejected last year all just below the cut-off. Of course, I had “feelings” about this, however, that is a long way away from feeling like an imposter. Is it not possible that many if not most people would just deal with such a thing, move on, and try again? It was my impression that your last post selected a particular sub-group of your readers to respond. Why not post a poll on your blog, like FSP sometimes does, to see what fraction of your readership suffers from imposter syndrome? I bet it’s not that many but I might be wrong…

  3. Klaas
    Of course I believe you have feelings, which was why your original comment felt a bit off. But I am merely quoting back what you wrote. Feelings most certainly aren’t ‘just for girls’, and I suspect your comment was badly received by readers as a result. You may think it’s silly to feel like an impostor, but for many people it’s all too real and it isn’t helpful – to them – to belittle it. It certainly isn’t just self-indulgence and people would shed it if they could. But many of them can suppress it, ‘deal with it’ if you like and move on. The whole point of my original post was that some very successful women had done just that, succeeded despite their inner fears, and were willing to talk about it openly.

    I did say the responses were self-selected and couldn’t be used as hard evidence on proportions of men and women feeling this way. That was why I quoted statistics from a more quantitatively meaningful study to demonstrate it is indeed ‘that many’ who suffer from it. Don’t extrapolate from your own fortunate position to the way others feel.

    Thanks for the pointer to Feynmann. I hadn’t appreciated that.

  4. Jacquelyn says:

    Klaas – A quick Google of “impostor syndrome” reveals numerous scholarly studies and popular articles dealing with the topic. It’s definitely not a rare thing, but has been linked to a lot of institutional biases (and not just to do with gender, but also race, class, etc.). By dismissing impostor syndrome as “silly” or “indulgent,” you trivialize what are very real experiences caused by societal pressures, systematic oppression, or institutionalized biases. Fighting impostor syndrome is not simply a matter of choosing not to wallow when faced with failure or rejection (and I’m deliberately avoiding your gendered language here). It’s a matter of understanding why people may feel as though they don’t belong, in spite of the abilities, background, and skills that say otherwise. Many new grad students feel like impostors, in spite of making the cut and not having had an opportunity for a rejected grant. Women in particular are socialized not to be assertive or to self-represent, and so it’s common to feel like an impostor even in the face of getting the grant (thinking it was a fluke, or luck, for example). I’d say the latter is much more of a common example of impostor syndrome than having an emotional reaction to a grant rejection, which is instead an essentially universal experience.

  5. James Cusack says:

    Very interesting.

    I think coming from any position where you’ve been underestimated, can provoke self-doubt.

    Although I’m only in the early stages of my career when I experience self-doubt, I actually refer to something my mother always told me, which is actually very simple: “Just get up every day and try your best, you can’t do much else!”. 

    It actually fits with some research I saw the other month, which shows that children who are told they’re intelligent are out-performed by children who are told they work hard. In this regard, it make me wonder whether self-doubt and criticism are important personality traits which relate to success (as a consequence of removing complacency and ensuring motivation remains).

  6. I’m very much in favour of the idea that activities that are directed at supporting women (or other named groups) benefit men too, and it might be a good idea to sell them as such rather than hiving “women’s issues” off into something separate.

    Having just watched Mrs Hopkinson going through labour I can fully appreciate the enormous stupidity of the label “weaker sex”!

    (Sorry that’s a bit off topic!)

  7. stephenemoss says:

    I have found this to be a fascinating discussion, not least because I was completely unaware of imposter syndrome before reading your first blog a few days ago. Inevitably perhaps, I have now myself been wondering, do I experience this syndrome? I think I do not, but why are some affected by it and others not? For the syndrome to exist there must be real imposters out there, and presumably we have to have a concrete perception of such an individual in order to visualize ourselves in the same way. In fact, I would go further and suggest that there could be a hierarchy of imposters in any large organization, and that the syndrome may depend on ones own position relative to those imposters.

    As an academic in the UK, we are all now subject to a fairly public reckoning of our achievements and outputs through the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The REF provides a dispassionate analysis of each of us, and despite the flaws in the way it metricizes individuals it does enable us to assess roughly where we sit alongside our peers. Upon viewing the academic landscape at the same altitude, I find that, if I am an imposter (and that is not really for me to judge), then at least on the basis of quantifiable criteria there are at least a few greater imposters than I.

    None of this may be of any comfort to those who suffer real anxiety due to imposter syndrome, and some with this syndrome may indeed be genuine imposters. But it is far more likely that the real imposters are the Dunning-Kruger group, among whom critical self-analysis seems to be stymied by incompetence.

  8. Niall says:

    I think it’s important to realise that the imposter syndrome is an extreme version of something that makes someone a good scientist, namely the ability to criticise your own work. Frankly I’d be a a bit suspicious of someone that doesn’t worry about their own work. However the imposter syndrome is where this goes so far as to not just increase the quality of someone’s work, it starts to affect the quantity and the affected party’s personal life.

  9. Pingback: Women in STEM, Role Models, and Impostor Syndrome « Speaking Up

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  11. Mattie says:

    There is a nice series of posts on the imposter syndrome and dunning-kruger with some examples and possible ways of dealing with them, starting here:

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