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OWSD Nigeria National Chapter Presents: "Imposter Syndrome with Women in Science", by Rachel Peterson

May 14, 2020

In this second edition of the OWSD Nigeria National Chapter University of Port Harcourt Branch series of scientific communications, Rachel Peterson takes on the issue of imposter syndrome.

In the late 1970s, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes (US) coined the term “Impostor Syndrome” after observing many high-achieving women who tended to believe they were not competent, and that they were over-evaluated by others. Scientists have recognized that it occurs more frequently in women than in men. This is because women are more likely than men to feel an external cause (such as luck or good timing, etc.) is responsible for a success, where men are more likely to attribute success to their own ability and hard work. This is likely due to socializing boys to be risk takers while socializing girls to be more careful.

There isn’t much research on the causes of the impostor phenomenon, but it can probably be attributed to a mix of nature and nurture. And, cultural expectations about the role of women in society certainly has an impact on it.

What’s important to note is that impostor syndrome is not a personality trait.  Imposter syndrome IS a reaction to certain situations.

Why this matters?

Having confidence in the quality of your work is a basic necessity for you to be an effective in your profession. Feeling like a phony will undermine the quality of your work. In order to restore your positive feelings about yourself you must first explore the reasons why you have viewed yourself as an imposter and then address those reasons so you can regain your confidence!

Here are four self-assessment questions that can help you discover what might be making you uneasy:

  1. What are the roots of your uncertainty?
  2. If you have just taken on a new position, a new role, some new research, how prepared do you feel?
  3. Are you convinced that ‘luck’ is the only reason you are advancing in your field?
  4. How much of a perfectionist are you and have you set goals that are unachievable?

How to Harness Your Inner Imposter:

In his book, “Find your Voice as a Leader,” Paul Larsen lays out 6 simple but effective step to Harness your inner Imposter:

Awareness Steps:

1. Understand it is a common occurrence and you are in good company since up to 75% of successful leaders and entrepreneurs have admitted to experiencing Imposter Syndrome at some point in their career.

2. Understand that it is originating from your own DNA…and you are the author of is not coming from other sources or other people.

Connection Steps:

3. Connect to your past accomplishments, your past triumphs, your past learnings, your past legacy. Write your success story...what has gotten you to this place...this time...this role on this day? It is not luck or fate, but deliberate steps you have taken that have made you

4. Connect to your future vision, your future purpose, your future goals/outcomes, your future potential. Author a compelling future vision of yourself by painting a realistic picture of what success would look like, feel like, etc. (Imposter Syndrome lives in the present hence why we want to "connect the past + future so that we do not ignore the present but use it as a stepping stone from our past to our future.)

Harnessing Steps:

5. Harness your past + future legacies to create your 3 Anchors of your Present Success. Create a triangle with 3 points and label each point with an attribute/trait/skill that you do well, that are you are recognized for. What makes you successful in the present?

6. Harness your 3 Anchors to continue to move forward, get unstuck, finesse your triggers when they arise and use it all for building a confident and convincing leadership brand. Use your 3 Anchors to bring awareness of what you have done in the past to be successful, what you do in the present to remain successful and what you need to do in the future to be successful.

Tips for Harnessing Imposter Syndrome from Catherine Sobara, PhD:

1. Ask The Difficult Questions.

There is no room for women to be meager and shy in science. Don’t hold back when you have a question, ask it without questioning how others may feel. Women in science have to go the extra mile to prove their worth; they must speak up and speak out about what they are passionate about.

2. Find Support And Be Supportive Of Others.

Unfortunately, in the battle to stand out, many women tend to turn their backs on one another to get ahead. By doing so, these women hold themselves back.

A better strategy is for women scientists to bind together and support each other in their pursuit of STEM careers.   There are many non-profit organizations for women in science that can help to build your network and provide mentorship along the way.

3. Fail Forward.

The best accomplishments are achieved after many rounds of trial and error. Even the most brilliant minds have made mistakes. We do not expect absolute perfection from others at all times and should not demand absolute perfection from ourselves at all times. 

As long as we learn from our mistakes, we will continue to grow and become stronger and more intelligent.

4. Wear Many Hats.

Scientist. CEO. Mother. Athlete. Writer. You do not have to be defined by any one job or any one thing. Too many women confine themselves to a single pursuit. They falsely believe they can only be scientists or businesswomen or mothers. In reality, women can be (and are!) many things at once. We don’t have to fit ourselves into a box. In academia, all PhDs are constantly asked what we will do when we are done as if there is some perfect job waiting for us once we graduate. But there is no perfect job and the women who go on to be successful are those who are willing to wear many hats and refuse to fit into any one mold.

5. Stop Apologizing.

Constantly apologizing for oneself is a habit not exclusive to women but it is a very prominent and problematic characteristic nonetheless. When you constantly apologize, you communicate to both yourself and the outside world that you’re always wrong.

This hurts both your self-esteem and your integrity.  A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that refusing to apologize provides several psychological benefits, including empowerment, confidence, and greater feelings of integrity and self-respect.

Of course, you should apologize if you did something legitimately wrong or failed to deliver, own up to it, learn from it, and move on.

However, Please do not apologize for your beliefs, your desires, your goals, your past, or the fact that you are a woman, you must stop apologizing if you want to move forward.

6. Celebrate The Small Victories

While woman face many difficulties in the workplace, it’s important to know that you don’t have to be a martyr. You don’t have to carry the torch for all women. Instead, all you have to do is fight your own battles and do what’s best for you and your career.

By doing this, you will set an amazing example for women around you and for the women scientists who will follow you. An important part of staying motivated is celebrating even the smallest victories in your career.

Stop waiting for your peers and superiors to take notice and start validating your own victories.

At the end of each day, review your accomplishments and acknowledge that you are one day closer to achieving your career goals.

7. Embrace Your Self-Worth

Women scientists have many advantages over other job candidates. If you’re a woman and have a PhD or are on your way to having one, the future is yours.  The only thing that can hold you back is yourself.

Know your value, women scientists are desperately needed in all industries, but you have to step up and seize the position you want. You can do this by asking the difficult questions and by finding a supportive network. By wearing many hats, refusing to apologize for the fact that you’re a woman, and celebrating even the smallest victories—you will be successful.

Consider joining: The Cheeky Scientist Association:

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