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Equality, diversity and inclusion, Work and occupational

Women and early career academics experience imposter syndrome in fields that emphasise natural brilliance

Imposter syndrome — the feeling that you don’t belong or aren’t capable at work or in education — can affect anybody.

25 August 2021

By Emily Reynolds

But people from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to experience imposter syndrome: first generation university students, for example, or people of colour.

Imposter syndrome can be particularly acute in academia, where intellectual flair is prized. In fact, a new study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology finds that in fields in which intellectual "brilliance" is perceived to be a prerequisite to success, imposter syndrome is more likely to strike women and early-career academics.

Participants were 4,870 academics from nine universities in the United States, all of which had a medical school, were research intensive, and were ranked in the country's top 100 institutions. After noting down their field of research, participants completed a measure of imposter feelings, indicating how much they agreed with statements like "I am afraid people important to me may find out that I am not as capable as they think I am". 

Next, they filled in measures of belonging (how accepted they felt by others in their field) and self-efficacy (how confident they were in their ability to succeed). Finally, participants indicated to what extent they felt brilliance was required for success in their field, again indicating agreement or disagreement with statements such as "being a top scholar of [my discipline] requires a special aptitude that just can't be taught" and "I think that with the right amount of effort and dedication, anyone can be a top scholar of [my discipline]".

Overall, women reported more imposter feelings than men. And women reported greater feelings of being an imposter the more that they believed their field was oriented towards natural brilliance rather than hard work. Those early on in their careers also reported more imposter feelings than those on faculty or in more secure positions, and again reported greater imposter feelings the more that they felt their field required natural brillance.

People who reported more imposter feelings were also likely to rate themselves as lower in self-efficacy and lower in feelings of belonging to their wider field.

The gender differences were even starker when the team looked at the ethnic background of academics, too: compared to White or Asian women, women from underrepresented minority backgrounds experienced even greater levels of imposter syndrome in fields perceived as emphasising brilliance.

So although the results were only correlational, the more a field was perceived to have an emphasis on or need for raw brilliance or genius, the more certain groups — women, people from ethnic groups underrepresented in academia, and early-career academics — were likely to experience imposter feelings and a lack of belonging.

Beyond the potential distress or stress that imposter feelings can cause, there could also be other ramifications. Low levels of self-efficacy and belonging are likely to impact not only productivity but likelihood of continuing in the field. Indeed, the team notes that the lower level of  imposter feelings among established academics could be down to a survivorship bias: those who never feel like they don't belong are more likely to pursue a further career in academia than those who feel a lack of community or lack of ability.

A longitudinal study could explore this further. If those who feel a lack of belonging are also more likely to belong to underrepresented groups, this could also hinder efforts to make particular fields more diverse.

It could also be that we need to reframe how we think about imposter syndrome altogether. Other research, for example, has suggested that "imposterism" is a bad lens through which to view the struggles Black doctoral students face in racist environments.

Rather than framing imposter feelings as an internal phenomenon, it may be more helpful to think about those barriers that stand in the way of certain people feeling comfortable and successful in their fields – and to try to break those barriers down.

Further reading

– Women—particularly underrepresented minority women—and early-career academics feel like impostors in fields that value brilliance.

About the author

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest