Postscript: More Thoughts on Imposter Syndrome

Inevitably, as soon as I posted “Outsiders, Imposters, and Aquatic Dinosaurs“, I thought of several more points to add. Call it l’esprit d’escalier du blogue or something. (All my French-speaking readers now stop reading in disgust.) Also, check out other excellent blog posts by Gerty Z. and InterplanetSara; I’m sure there will be many more voices in this conversation, and since these are all part of the Carnival of Diversity in Science, they will all be gathered and linked in one place eventually.

Imposter Syndrome and Underrepresented Groups

I sincerely hope this balance changes, but I’m noticing that the blog posts about Imposter Syndrome (IS) so far are mostly from women. Based on private communications (not to mention my own confessed feelings), I know men also suffer from IS. However, I wonder if there are two related things going on: are white and Asian men experiencing IS less than other groups, and if they do experience IS, are they less likely to admit it publicly? These may both be true, and if so, I suspect the reasons are similar. (I write this of course from my perspective as a white male.)

White and Asian men are told (implicitly at least) that they “belong” in science, so maybe they don’t question their “right” to be scientists as much as others may. Their “right” to do science is also less likely to be questioned by others: if they stumble a bit, nobody is going to say “you failed because you’re a white dude”, whereas if you’re a woman or someone of African descent of any gender, you are too often seen as representing your entire group. If an individual from a traditionally underrepresented group experiences difficulties, that is still frequently perceived as reflections of innate abilities. If others (e.g. middle-aged or old white men) question your right to even be doing science, is it any wonder you might be susceptible to IS?

But on the other hand, maybe white men are less likely to express IS because they feel they shouldn’t have it. Admitting human foibles is often seen as a weakness, and only the strong are deemed worthy of being scientists—a frustrating situation for everyone, I believe. (One of my female professors was openly much harder on her female students than her male students, since she wanted to make them tougher; I suspect it had the opposite effect, driving students who needed positive reinforcement away.) Members of underrepresented groups, on the other hand, may be more likely to admit to IS because they are already vulnerable in a way white males aren’t.

I don’t know if either of these points are true or adequate to describe the situation. If I’m being a bad scientist by not doing a literature search, feel free to yell at me in the comments or by email.

Outsiderism and “Maverick” Scientists

While scientists like Galileo and Einstein are often painted as “outsiders”, they really weren’t. Galileo was well-known and well-connected in his day, and though his ideas about astronomy were considered radical by many, his ultimate punishment by the Church was less about science than it was about politics. (We should also remember that while his version of the heliocentric model was conceptually closer to reality than geocentrism, it was less quantitatively accurate than the Ptolemaic model. Galileo’s model had every planet following circular orbits, which doesn’t fit the data.) While he was under house arrest, Galileo’s fame actually grew, and he was visited by a number of prominent thinkers, including John Milton and Thomas Hobbes.

Einstein, though he was working at a patent office instead of a university, had a good rigorous scientific education and was finishing his doctorate while working full-time—hardly unusual in his day or in ours! Even though relativity took some time to gain full acceptance, along with some nasty antisemitism complicating things in some circles, Einstein wasn’t exactly ostracized. Arguably his career got off to a slow start, but he wasn’t an “outsider” in any meaningful sense, and only became less so over time.

2 responses to “Postscript: More Thoughts on Imposter Syndrome”

  1. Matthew,

    I think that your ideas in “Imposter Syndrome and Underrepresented Groups” are almost right on the money. I am both a female and an ethnic minority in the sciences. There is some pressure that if I fail, people will assume that others like me (i.e. same ethnicity) can’t be good scientists. It also doesn’t help that the public’s perception of a capable scientist is an older, white male. But, that perception comes a bit from media and the academic and research institutions where “good” science is done. Unfortunately on tv and at many of these institutions-women scientists, and to an even lesser extent, minority women in science (African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas, etc.) are ill-represented, if represented at all.

  2. […] be really smart", rather than "oh, you must have worked really hard". DrMRFrancis also notes that men in the majority may well feel imposter syndrome just as badly because of these factors, and may be afraid to express it, feeling like they should belong, rather than that they […]

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