A few years ago in a statistics class, my professor put a challenging problem on the board and said the first person to solve it would get one hundred dollars. I began working the problem out and quickly came up with an answer. However, when I looked around and saw the other students still working, I felt suddenly unsure. It seemed impossible that I had arrived at the correct answer in less time than anyone else, I thought that surely I had missed a step. I looked back over my work, re-checked everything, and found the same answer. I was still working up the courage to raise my hand when a boy sitting a few seats away shot his hand into the air. The teacher looked over his work, smiled and said “we have a winner!”. When he went to the front of the room to show how he had solved the problem, I realized that my answer had been correct all along. A horrible sinking feeling washed over me, I felt so frustrated with myself for not raising my hand.
That night as I was trying to fall asleep I found myself obsessing over what had happened in class. Why had I been so reluctant to share my answer? Why did I always assume I was wrong? I told myself I was overreacting, but at the same time I knew that my feelings were not just about missing out on some statistics-class glory and one hundred dollars; this was just another instance of me deciding that I was not good enough to take advantage of an opportunity that I deserved, and I was tired of it.
It turns out that I am not alone in feeling constantly underqualified no matter how much I accomplish or how hard I work. In fact, there is even a name for it: impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon whereby, regardless of their achievements, a person feels that they are inadequate and believes they are only masquerading as an intelligent and accomplished person. One of the behaviors associated with impostor syndrome is hypervigilance and fear of being “discovered” as an impostor. As a result of this, it is common for sufferers to avoid situations where they might publically reveal their imagined incompetence, and feel that they need to over-prepare in order to keep up the “facade” of intelligence. For example, someone experiencing impostor syndrome might not submit a paper for publication for fear that they would be rejected and proved a failure or someone might be reluctant to answer a math problem in front of the class.
Unsurprisingly, impostor syndrome does not impact all demographics equally. While anyone can experience impostor syndrome, some groups are affected at a much higher rate than others. Women, and especially women of color are much more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome than men. The fact that impostor syndrome tends to impact marginalized groups more heavily indicates that it may be caused in part by stereotypes and socialization that suggests to members of these groups that they are unworthy and unintelligent.
For example, a study of parental messages to young children found that parents tend to believe that high mathematical achievement in male children is due to natural aptitude, whereas the same achievement in daughters is attributed to hard work and not natural ability. Another study showed that teachers interact with and call on male students more often than female students, and tend to respond positively when male students call out answers in class but admonish female students for doing the same thing. Additionally, the study reported that African American female students are given much less attention in class than both female and male white students, in spite of seeking out teacher attention more often.
The implicit message that young women receive is that they are less intelligent and less worthy of attention and praise. Although these messages are subtle, they can have very real and lasting negative consequences. Impostor syndrome is associated with decreased self-esteem, decreased self-efficacy, and decreased self-acceptance, as well as increased general anxiety, depression, and test-taking anxiety. Additionally, some studies suggest that those experiencing the impostor phenomenon are less likely to achieve their potential due to their belief that they are inadequate.
For me the realization that my experience was actually very common, especially for women in STEM fields, was a relief but not a solution. I told myself that I would take more risks, talk more in class, and not second-guess myself so much on exams. However, this is easier said than done. I still find myself double and triple-checking my answers before I raise my hand in class, and I am still a very nervous test-taker. But simply being aware that my perception of myself is skewed has enabled me to make some positive changes. Even if I don’t think I will get a job or I don’t believe my paper will be published, I still push myself to apply and I am very often pleasantly surprised. On a larger scale, combating impostor syndrome requires us to take a hard, critical look at the way we socialize boys and girls, and our attitudes about class, race, gender, and ability.