Running with wolves – imposter syndrome & sexism in science

This post was submitted anonymously.

I have my very own wolf. It pads beside me all through my working day. It is not the friendly type of wolf that you dream of owning as a child. It is vicious, snarling and without mercy, it is has a name, but not one that I gave it. It is called ‘imposter syndrome’.

My wolf has grown from the pup that it was in my undergraduate studies to a fully-fledged beast, wild and unforgiving. I have no control of it; I have no idea when it will appear by my side. I can only guarantee that it will because it always does.

For those unfamiliar with the term ‘imposter syndrome’, it is in its own way quite complex but it can be summarised as follows. With this condition it is very difficult for someone to internalize their accomplishments. We remain firm in the belief that we are fraudulent, we do not deserve our status in the field and that at any time we will be found out to be ‘fake’ or unworthy. We see ourselves as undeserving of the success that we have achieved and are more likely to put it down to luck, chance and numerous other things rather than saying that we worked for it and we deserved it. We will never willingly own our successes or our merits. It is something that has been found in particular to affect women working in science.

This is exactly the field that I am in. I am in my late twenties, I have a BSc, an MSc, and numerous diplomas in varied topics and I am currently working towards completing my PhD. When I wrote that down I cringed because I do not feel that I rightfully earned any of those things, that I just got lucky and that my ‘peers’ in the field are so much more worthy of the accomplishments. I feel I know people who deserve my PhD position more than I do, despite the fact that I work fifty + hours a week and absolutely love my work and my research topic. The wolf in my head howls ‘it was fluke, you deserve none of this, there are hundreds of people who know more and are more worthy than you.’

So how does the infra-structure of the field I work in affect my imposter syndrome? Science as a field, or at least the part of it that I’m in, facilitates men’s achievement better than it does women’s, particularly if you want to stay in academia and active research. This means that my imposter syndrome becomes profoundly exaggerated because it is not just imposter syndrome; it is the wolf with an added sexist edge.

An article in Nature recently highlighted differences between male and female treatment in science ‘In equality quantified; mind the gender gap’. The link to the piece is here. While acknowledging that women have made great contributions to the field of science, it highlights the numerous career pressures that we face. It highlights how women leave the field, how male scientists are employed more often and how there are still differences in pay between male and female researchers. This piece puts eloquently how these issues affect women as a group. I will, on a personal level, address how they can affect someone with imposter syndrome.

The fact that women leave the field is very disheartening to me, particularly when I’m approaching the age where it is most common to leave. I have few working examples of successful women in the field but the knowledge that during the post-doc years we leave at a rate of knots only heightens my sense of fear and anxiety. It plays on the idea that my luck may run out, that I won’t find work, that I won’t be supported in choices I make regarding children, that I am not good enough, that I will be forced to leave the field.

In the ‘Live issue’ section of the piece, Nature addresses the bias that is present in the field. They highlight that both men and women at higher levels perpetuate it; when shown the exact same CV faculty members were more inclined to favour it when it was labelled John rather that Jennifer. They were willing to pay John more and felt more inclined to be his mentor. This is dangerous information in my hands.

Suddenly I’m facing a world of ‘Johns’ who deserve more than me, who despite having the exact same CV are more worthy. I’m already concerned that my CV plays me up far too much, now I’m also worried that my gender is a pretty big issue as well. This gives my wolf a sex, it is clearly male and it is clearly hunting for me. I become a hazy mess of fear and doubt; I’m dreadful at what I do, I’ve only gotten this far because others weren’t available. And those others, to my mind, are men.

Men are not seen as ticking time bombs of maternity leave, they supposedly do not feel the same pressures regarding children as women. This is the effect that society has on us, if we have children but need to work 50 + hours a week we are bad mothers, if we work less than that we are bad scientists. No man is called a bad father when he works that hard, mainly because he is assumed to be the ‘bread-winner’.

‘Women leave science to have their children, which is just how it is’. My own supervisor said this to me.  The same man is actively encouraging me to have my children young (mainly I think because he had his late, due to not having a womb expiry date) and to marry. He is actively encouraging me to settle down, something that isn’t very feasible in the first few years after a PhD because I need to gather as much experience as possible, in as many labs as possible before trying for permanency. That fact alone means I have to be able to travel. My supervisor, of course, has no notion of the fact that that is an incredibly horrible thing to say to a woman in the field. Why would he know? He never had to leave the field to have his children…his wife did.

Ironically if you are female and successful in the field things don’t improve. At a conference I attended, a truly inspirational scientist was brought down to the dress she was wearing by many of her male peers (and in fairness some of her female ones as well). This is a woman who has carried out ground-breaking research, has added hugely to our knowledge and yet they brought her value down to her physical appearance.

The very bones of the field perpetuate my fears. It is a place where women leave and men are better appreciated, much like many other competitive, male-dominated fields such as business, engineering and technology. When you already feel like a fraud the awareness of these facts pushes right at the limits of what you can take. You set your goals so high there seems no doubt that they will trip you up. You are not just trying to prevent being ‘found out’ you are actively trying to prevent being found out by men. Until these foundations change I will continue to wrestle my monster

I’m not just fighting to learn to accept my achievements which is what I would be doing in a gender balanced field, I am fighting to accept that my achievements hold up against the very male ideas prevalent in the field; to prove I can be one of the boys. In winning this fight I risk essentially giving up my womanliness because to play in this field I will have to play by their rules.

There is no doubt in my mind that the structure of the field needs to change. It is not just about encouraging women into research but facilitating our staying.  That means addressing the gender gap and other concerns that we have as a community. The time for putting hands over ears and pretending that women aren’t working in science has passed. We are here.  Granted some of us may feel very unsafe, but we took that chance, now we need support.

We need communities where we are celebrated, where we are not punished or risking unemployment for making a choice regarding whether or not to have children, where we are not called ‘feisty’ because we can hold our own.

For me, personally, I need my imposter syndrome to stop having a male face. I need to it to be androgynous because in my life already there are so many male faces that do not understand how difficult it can be to be a woman. I do not need this creature to have one as well.

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