Context and Variation

Context and Variation

Human behavior, evolutionary medicine… and ladybusiness.

Impostors, the Culture of Science, and Fulfilling Our Potential


An image of the kiddo, my daughter, looking especially feisty and amazing.

My daughter, who just this morning declared "I want to be a scientist like mama and an engineer like dada!" Role models may help keep impostor syndrome at bay.

Not an impostor

I think I started blogging because of impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome, for those unfamiliar with the term, is when an individual feels she doesn’t belong or deserve her accomplishments. This can come from external or internal factors, and really, the internal factors are by definition largely derived from the external ones.

A person can have experiences that directly lead her to feel like an impostor, such as repeated remarks about her age, probing questions into her expertise despite a strong technical background, or jokes about a woman’s science capabilities. She can be reminded that she is no more than an object to some, by reading about studies showing women’s bodies are interpreted as objects but men’s as people. And a person can internalize these experiences and feel less competent, such as when she second guesses her invitation to an elite science conference, to a major blog network, or to a tenure-track position *cough not me cough*. This second-guessing based on stereotype threat can actually lead to, in the case of gendered impostor syndrome, women actually sounding less competent than men, but only when communicating with men about their science.

So, I was saying how my blogging came out of impostor syndrome. My confidence lies in teaching and outreach (notice I didn’t say my strengths, more on this shortly). And I have a tendency to throw myself into activities where I am confident so that I don’t have to deal with the feelings of, well, un-confidence. So against the general advice given to tenure-track faculty at research-intensive institutions I immediately got involved in a major teaching and service initiative that has drained a lot of my time and effort, and I started to blog. Now, teaching, service and outreach are activities that faculty should devote a lot of time to. And all of this work has actually had a positive ripple effect on my research in terms of building relationships in my community, university, and discipline, building a name for myself as an innovative teacher, improving my writing skills and general anthropology knowledge, and emboldening me to pursue a more biocultural research focus. But it’s unclear to me whether these ripples were worth the huge whirlpool of lost time that could have gone to writing manuscripts and proposals.

Am I living a life I can be proud of? Most certainly. Am I pursuing teaching, research, service and outreach projects I deem important? Absolutely. Have I organized my time in such a way as maximizes my case for tenure?

No. No, I have not.

And this different budgeting of my time – a product of feeling like an impostor in my job and actually thinking the stuff I do is important – is what has been on my mind lately. The question is, how does one be a faculty member that does what is right while not shying away from the work that earns you research accolades, publications, grants and tenure? To be clear, being a faculty member that does what is right, by my personal standards at least, is one that is strong in research as well as teaching, service and outreach. This might differ from a tenure committee that emphasizes a focus on research accomplishments, but not by much.

Here’s the thing: I think my research kind of rocks. Let me try and state this again without the typical, gendered equivocating: my research rocks. I don’t think it’s the kind of research that Nature or Science will ever value (haha, except that this is a Nature Publishing Group-funded blog!), I don’t think Natalie Angier will ever knock down my door to interview me among a legion of my grad students and postdocs in a fancy, center-funded laboratory. But I think that the questions I ask, the way I frame my research, and the evidence I have gathered is going to have a lasting, meaningful impact on my field and, I hope, on clinical women’s health research. I have a perspective that could radicalize our understanding of human reproductive ecology, and project ideas and upcoming pilots that will test whether this is the case.

Imagine if I could stop being chicken enough to confront the feeling that I am a less competent researcher. Imagine if I could finally really be the scientist I know I can be. Because I love you all, and science writing is a valuable part of my life, but I am a scientist first and blogger second.

It was with these thoughts swirling in my head, and with my making some serious progress this summer in this direction, that I went to Sci Foo last weekend.

Whoa, I know Sci Foo

Sci Foo, for those not in the know (which was me before about 5pm Friday the 3rd) is a science unconference put on by O’Reilly group (hence Foo, Friends Of O’Reilly), Google, and Nature Publishing Group. The selection process for, and purpose of, this invite-only conference is opaque. And the unconference style, which selects for bold personalities unafraid to run sessions that they make up on the spot, can compound this problem for those of an impostor-y inclination. What do I have to contribute? Why am I here? I don’t know what to run a session on, but if I don’t run a session, will I not get invited back?

I say this not to lay blame on the Sci Foo format – I enjoyed myself immensely and think there is a lot to be gained by disrupting the traditional conference structure. And the conference organizers deserve major props for putting some safeguards in place to circumvent impostor syndrome or more quiet personalities: there was a planning wiki for people to offer session ideas ahead of time, and empty spaces left open intentionally so people who didn’t want to submit a session on the first night had a chance to think and maybe contribute later in the conference.

But it did not help that the conference was overwhelmingly male and white, more than any conference I have ever attended. I don’t think I was the only one wondering why it was a total dude-fest, and the sex ratio put me on the defensive as soon as I got on the first shuttle from the hotel to the Googleplex. This lessened by the end of the first full day, because over the course of my experience of Sci Foo I was met with nothing but kindness, excitement and collegiality. But I had to check my attitude again and again, and remind myself that I was not a token, to engage fully in conversations.

The culture of science

Somehow, I think by goading each other into it, Christina Agapakis, Sally Otto and I co-led a session in the very first slot on Saturday morning on impostor syndrome and the culture of science. Christina Agapakis came up with the idea and is a synthetic biology post-doc, fellow SciAm blogger, and has written her own fantastic post on the session; Sally Otto is a biology professor who performs mathematical models to test cool hypotheses about evolution and is a MacArthur genius grant-winner (I know!!!). We wanted to think about the culture of science that pushes many people out, and then makes many of those who remain feel like impostors.

When we first showed up to the room, there were a few young women already present, and so I figured the session would go as we predicted: we gain power from recognizing our fears, put some thought into changing the culture, and go forward supporting each other and trying to take up space in the conference. But suddenly a bunch of men – older, accomplished men – showed up. Then the gender ratio was closer to 50-50, better than the conference but still not what we expected.

I couldn’t figure out why they were there. Were they allies? Were they there to troll the session? We introduced the session and then had every single participant discuss what the term meant to them and briefly describe an experience they had where they felt like an impostor. It was important to us, even though it took most of the session, to make sure everyone got to speak once.

As it turns out, the women in the room were there for exactly the reason we designed the session in the first place: to think about our impostor feelings, confront them, and move on from them to have a productive conference. The men in the room were there for a few different reasons, none of them bad, all of them interesting. Some men were there to be allies, some were there because they had no idea what the term impostor syndrome was and wanted to find out, and some were there because they wanted to discuss their definition of impostor syndrome, which was the existence of scientists who act like they know what they’re talking about but are really impostors (these folks were very vehement and wanted to figure out how to annihilate these people).

And some men felt like impostors sometimes, too.

I think the session was educational for everyone. Those of us familiar with the traditional usage of the term introduced a level of sensitivity to the topic, and discussed ways to produce successful strategies for surviving and thriving in the academic climate. Those who had achieved some level of fame and developed a sense of being an impostor afterwards (which was very interesting, and shared by several prominent people in the room) had some lighthearted and thoughtful ways to deal with it. And we all took solace in the ideal version of science, which delights in ideas, uncertainty, and sometimes being wrong.

A few points that we discussed are worth highlighting:

  • The culture of science often privileges perceived legitimacy from attitude and pedigree over actual ability. This is counter to the ideal culture of science I mention above, and makes it difficult for scientists to become interdisciplinary.
  • We should be more open about ignorance, uncertainty, and knowing what we know versus what we don’t know. Again, this is appreciated in many places across science even while directly opposing behaviors are rewarded.
  • We need to differentiate between authority and expertise. Some worried that the democratization of science actually empowers people who speak with more authority rather than those who are best at their science.

What struck me by the end of the session is that impostor syndrome is universal. The folks who wanted to demolish impostors and the folks who wanted to stop feeling like an impostor are on either side of the same coin. People who are less of an authority than they think they are, and people (mostly women and people of color) who are more of an authority than they think or are treated, are a result of issues in the culture of science, which includes universal issues of sexism and racism.

What we didn’t have time for was a discussion about how to move forward from here. What will it take to move towards an impostor-free culture of science?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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