Am I an imposter?
Last night I went to my first Connect talk, and I was left feeling that I certainly need to connect with Connect a bit more! Connect is for women studying computing, engineering, and the built environment at Edinburgh Napier University and, as I am doing my PhD in the School of Computing, I get to be a part of it. Even though I’m not really a computer-y computing student.
The evening’s talk was given by Lindsay Law, who works in technology at senior management level with the Royal Bank of Scotland. Lindsay’s academic and professional interest is in gender diversity within the workplace, focusing on IT, and came to talk to the group about her own career and her research on “Imposter Syndrome”. It was extremely interesting to me, because I hadn’t realised that feeling like a fraud is quite common—even when the feelings are unfounded. (Yep, I thought it was just me!)
Imposter syndrome, it seems, is all around us and—whilst it seems most commonly mentioned when talking about women in the workplace—it can impact people across demographic markers. So, is it caused by cultural and societal expectations? Is it low self-esteem and self-doubt based on our own insecurities or on the stereotypes around gender roles and abilities? Or is it a combination of those things and more?
Regardless of the external causes, it seems that the outcome is the same: Women tend to doubt themselves. We may feel that we’re not qualified for a job, or to make certain decisions or statements. We may turn our strengths into weaknesses by making excuses or apologies for things we should be proud of. We may put our successes down to luck rather than skill. Or we may hesitate to accept compliments and uncomfortable taking credit for our accomplishments.
Personally, I’ve been experiencing it for several years now—beginning when I was 25 years old and decided to go to university. Yes, me. As a small-town redneck from a working class (lower working class, at that!) background. The last place I belonged was in higher education.
I excelled and became the first university graduate in our family and entered the workforce. But still I felt that I didn’t belong. I wasn’t a city girl; I wasn’t an office worker; I was a fraud and they’d find me out at any moment.
Then I returned to Scotland to get my master’s degree. And, again, I felt like a fraud. I felt certain that I’d just scrape by at best—if I didn’t fail. But even when I was proven wrong by getting (earning!) a distinction for my dissertation and the course as a whole, I was doubtful. I mean, I am dyslexic, I can’t be the owner of a master’s degree—with distinction!
And when I started to apply for PhD programmes? Naw, no one’s going to want me at their school for a PhD. No one. No chance. But I applied to three universities—and was accepted by all. I’ve been told this is rare; I’ve been told this is a true accomplishment and a sign of my academic worth and ability. But I am still waiting to be found out.
Oh, yes. One day, someone is going to stop, think, and realise that I don’t belong in academia. I am a small-town redneck. I spent the first few years of my life being ridiculed for speech delays—fixed by multiple years of speech therapy. I am dyslexic. And we all know that means stupid, right?
But, obviously, I’m very capable. Right? I must be or I’d have been found out by now. But I’m embarrassed to say that out loud because what if someone challenges me? What if someone says that I’m only being given these opportunities because I’m a small-town redneck; because I’m a first-generation college kid; because I’m dyslexic and speech impaired? What if I only have this education because no one wanted to discriminate against the outsider?
I feel slightly more confident after hearing that I’m not alone in these feelings of fraud and imposterism (there I go inventing words again!) but I admit that these feelings won’t just go away. It doesn’t help that I believe everyone who tells me negative things.
So, what am I going to do to fix this? Well, I’d like to say that I’m going to heed all of last night’s advice and just instantly stop thinking about my flaws and start projecting my strengths, but I’m a human being with nearly 40 years’ of practice believing the negative stuff. (It’s easier to believe the bad stuff, you know!) Instead, I guess I’m just going to have to slowly work to remind myself that I am capable. I will try to surround myself with others who’ve achieved greatness. And I will keep connecting with groups like the Connect group where I can learn a bit, laugh a bit, and be inspired a lot!
Oh! I’m also going to start standing up for myself a bit better when people I care about tell me that my studies are unimportant because it’s not “real” science and I won’t be a “real” doctor when I’m done. (That’s a wee sneak preview to my 2014 resolutions.)