Why women in STEM suffer from the 'Impostor Phenomenon'
Support Dr Terri Simpkin is researching the Impostor Phenomenon in STEM occupations — where capable women experience feelings of inadequacy, despite obvious suitability for their role.
If you’re a woman in a STEM occupation and would like to contribute to the research, take the questionnaire:
Do you suffer from 'unconscious, self limiting feelings of being inadequate, unqualified and fraudulent, despite evidence to the contrary'? Do you worry that you are going to be 'exposed' or 'found out' in the workplace? Then you may be suffering from the Impostor Phenomenon, which affects both sexes, but particularly women.
Dr Terri Simpkin, Head of Department, Leadership and Management at Anglia Ruskin University, is currently conducting research to identify the prevalence of the Impostor Phenomenon (IP) among women in STEM, for general publication next year. This isn't a new theory: IP was first put forward in the 1970s by clinical psychologists Dr Pauline R Clance and Dr Suzanne A Imes. “It's called Impostor Phenomenon because it suggests that high achieving women expect a tap on the shoulder and to be told that: 'We're very sorry, but there's been a mistake — you shouldn't be in your role because it should have gone to someone else,'” explains Simpkin. “Women don't feel worthy of the position they have achieved. They feel 'lucky' and that they are 'winging it' — despite being highly qualified and having gone through rigorous recruitment processes to get there.”
Impostor Phenomenon can have real consequences, too. People with IP can experience stress, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. At some point, the fear of failure — or the fear of not being able to maintain a level of success — leads women to stop pushing themselves towards senior roles, or even give up altogether.
The reason why Simpkin is researching IP in STEM is because women are not entering STEM careers in significant numbers; and those that do find it difficult to advance and so are poorly represented in the upper echelons of the sector. This is despite the fact that there has been significant work completed in recent years to get girls interested in STEM careers and shift barriers that might impede their progress. “So why are we not seeing better gender balance in STEM?” asks Simpkin. “I think there's something else going on here — and I'm wondering if it's because of the Impostor Phenomenon: a lack of self-confidence that is stopping women from appreciating their own achievements and seeking promotional opportunities.”
Men tend not to notice that IP exists, says Simpkin; not because they are ignorant or heartless, but because — understandably — it doesn't even figure on their radar. You don't notice something you don't experience, after all.
“I was at a conference the other day when someone said: 'You tend not to understand your level of privilege, until it's pointed out to you.' I thought that was very well put. Generally, organisations are constructed in a way that makes them very male-dominated environments. But I want to be very clear, this isn't about 'man-bashing'. It's about holding up a different perspective and showing that things are different for women in the workplace and particularly in STEM occupations.” For example, men are very good at seeking promotion if they feel they fulfil about 80 per cent of the selection criteria; women, however, are more reticent.
So what can be done about IP? “Women have to stand back from their achievements and say: 'I did a good job there, I'm proud of it — and I'm being inadequately rewarded or recognised for it',” says Simpkin. “They have to ask, dispassionately: 'If someone else did the job I've just done, would I be congratulating them for it?'”
It's difficult to know if STEM, as as sector, is aware of the Impostor Phenomenon and willing to do something about it. “I'd like to say 'yes it is',” says Simpkin, who is currently encouraging women in STEM to take an online test to see if they have experienced IP. “Certainly the people I've spoken to in STEM occupations are interested in it. But, right now, I'm not sure it has enough traction because the sector has been focussed — quite rightly — on removing overt barriers to women's careers, such as conscious bias in recruitment. Now it needs to focus on subconscious and unconscious barriers.”
The problem is, underlying assumptions about gender are deeply embedded in our culture. “It's only in relatively recent history that it was recognised that women have a role to play, they are entitled to a voice and that they are just as capable across all endeavours,” says Simpkin. “Look at the law on equal pay, which was only put into practice in 1975. So these attitudes will be very difficult to shift. And IP is a multi-faceted problem too. We'll have to come at it from a number of different perspectives in order to make a difference.”
For more information about the courses at Anglia Ruskin University check out: