She's Not Faking It

Imposter Syndrome in academia

By Liz Forester; photo by Leo Turpan


The First Whistle

On President Jill Tiefenthaler’s first day teaching at Colgate University in 1991, she stepped into the Economics building wearing a dress and heels. As the only female faculty member in the department, she knew she needed to embrace the standard of how young female professionals should appear. So she dressed the part. She did so with poise and confidence, and at that moment, she did not just hold a title; she truly felt like a professor.

She walked down the hall towards her classroom, where, for the first time, students would face her. Very early on in Tiefenthaler’s post-secondary education, she had known she wanted to pursue a career in academia. By the age of 26, she had received her masters degree and PhD from Duke University and went straight from there to Colgate to begin her professorship. 

Suddenly, right before reaching her classroom, Tiefenthaler heard a man whistle. From down the hall, a male senior faculty member from her department had cat-called her. Tiefenthaler immediately dove into the women’s bathroom.

“I, of course, was the only one in there, since there were no other women in the department,” Tiefenthaler recalled. “All I could think was that I made a mistake, that I shouldn’t be there. I had no one to talk about it with, either, since there were no other senior women in the department to say, ‘Can you believe this happened?’”

That pride—the pride from years of education and three degrees—was temporarily squashed by this comment, and there was not a soul to whom she could immediately turn to stitch the wound. 

The treatment of women in the professional world has changed since 1991, but it is still imperfect. Negative interactions like the one Tiefenthaler experienced at Colgate still occur, and the feelings of doubt, insecurity, and lack of belonging still plague women as a result. Those feelings stem from narratives embedded into our society that pre-determine sex-appropriate behaviors for males and females: women stay at home to care for the children, and men earn the money. Though reality has started to conflict with this narrative—more women attend college, join the workforce, attain positions of leadership, etc.—the narrative still exists. As a result, many young women and girls struggle with that discrepancy and subsequently suffer in a psychological pattern called imposter syndrome.


“Perfection With Ease”

Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes originally coined the term “imposter syndrome” in a 1978 article that studied feelings of self-doubt associated with success. Although other minority groups experience this disposition, most of the robust research focuses on women. In their study, Clance and Imes sampled female undergraduate, graduate and PhD faculty, medical students and professionals in fields such as law, nursing, social work and teaching.

Clance and Imes defined imposter syndrome as the disjuncture between objective success and a person’s internalization of that success. People who experience imposter syndrome have difficulty believing they deserve credit for what they may have achieved, and they may feel an overwhelming sense of unworthiness. This can consistently hinder a person’s ability to internalize success: instead of ascribing their merits to their own work and skill, a person afflicted with imposter syndrome repeatedly attributes their work to luck or to their peers.

People who experience imposter syndrome feel like frauds who have fooled the people who think they are intelligent. One woman in Clance and Imes’ study said, “I was convinced that I would be discovered as a phony when I took my comprehensive doctoral examination. I thought the final test had come.”

Many psychologists have looked at the role of upbringing in relation to imposter syndrome. Clance and Imes distinguished two categories of upbringing females may experience that can lead to imposter syndrome: first, the group of women who have a sibling or close relative—usually male—who has been designated as the ‘intelligent’ member of the family. The family has (directly or indirectly) designated the woman as the ‘sensitive’ or socially adept member of the family. That narrative engrains in the woman a sense that she can never surpass her sibling’s intelligence, no matter what she accomplishes. 

Part of her believes this myth and part of her wishes to debunk it. The latter part drives her towards outstanding grades, academic honors and acclaim from teachers. Despite these clear marks of success and oftentimes the poorer performance of the other sibling, her family continues to subscribe to their initial categorization of the children. 

The other type of upbringing occurs when the family has conveyed to the woman their belief that she is superior in every way, and that when she wants to accomplish something, she will inevitably do so with ease. 

The woman in question, though, starts to experience difficulty in achieving certain goals and sometimes, outright failure. She begins to lift the veil of perfection draped upon her since her toddler years, and she does not find what her parents see. Similar to the first category of family dynamic, the woman develops a contradictory mental profile: she simultaneously distrusts her parents’ idyllic perception of her, yet she also feels that she is obligated to uphold that ideal.

At this stage, the woman struggles with upholding the narrative of “perfection with ease.” She has to study arduously for tests, run sprints after practice once the rest of her team has left. She has to put in the extra hour, the extra mile to even brush perfection, and do so without anyone finding out that she is constantly working. Because she cannot live up to the standard of “perfection with ease,” she jumps to the extreme, concluding that she is unintelligent. She is not remarkably talented, as others have consistently told her, and therefore, an imposter.

Clance and Imes attribute this latter type of imposter syndrome to the societal expectation that women will not achieve success in non-traditional careers. Women are more likely to internalize this societal expectation into a self-stereotype that they are incompetent, even if others tell them differently. Men, on the other hand, are more often told by society that they are destined for success, and thus internalize a sense of their own ability that is not easily fractured. 

Contemporary research supports the existence of this fracture and its emergence at a shockingly young age. In late January, Science magazine published a study that found that six and seven-year-olds overwhelmingly perceive men as smarter than women. In the study, researchers asked girls to identify which photo represented a “really, really smart person:” one of a man, and one of a woman. Whereas the five-year-olds generally selected the photo that matched their gender, six and seven-year-old girls were “significantly less likely” to choose the female photo. The study concluded that their findings suggest that when these girls reach career-age, they will be less likely to choose an ambitious career. 

Factors beyond gender can drastically influence the development of imposter syndrome, for instance, generation. The Millennial generation’s parental and technological upbringing has inflated our proclivity of developing imposter syndrome. The alteration between excessive praise and criticism from parents and other adults, the need to manufacture oneself on social media to gain likes and followers, the inordinate pressure to build an endless resume of experience—all of these factors have led our generation to constantly feel like we have something more to prove. 

The intersection of race, sexuality, socioeconomic class, religion and other personal identifiers can further complicate the experience of imposter syndrome in both women and men. Studies of imposter syndrome in other minorities are still in their early stages, but recently, more authors have published studies highlighting the role of ethnicity. Although the social and historical origins differ, the manifestations of imposter syndrome generally parallel that of women.


“Boys do this, girls do that”

Of course, not all types of upbringing cultivate imposter syndrome. Others foster the self-esteem necessary to defend against the social interactions that trigger effects of imposter syndrome. 

Tiefenthaler’s robust self-esteem, stemming from her childhood on a farm in rural Iowa, defended her in the long-run against certain triggers. “My parents worked side by side on the farm every day, and even though they did different things on the farm, it was a collaborative effort. I also didn’t have an older brother. I had an older sister, a younger sister and baby brother who is 10 years younger than me. So, there was never this sort of ‘boys do this and girls do this.’ Men and women’s roles were very similar.” 

Tiefenthaler’s exposure to “sex-appropriate roles” continued to be delayed when she started her undergraduate degree at Saint Mary’s College, a women’s college in Indiana. There, she interacted with female faculty and staff who had both successful careers and families. For many women at that time and today, choosing to have a career can disincentivize them from starting a family and vice versa.  

“I remember when I got to Wake Forest [as provost], people were always concerned for the upbringing of my kids,” Tiefenthaler said. “But it really said something about how people still perceive the ‘proper’ role for women, even though women now dominate education and college graduation rates. Saint Mary’s shielded me from that reality for a while.”

Professor of Political Science Elizabeth Coggins acknowledges that the type of experience Tiefenthaler had at Saint Mary’s is crucial to overcoming the sense of insecurity that emotionally deadlocks women in a position lower than their intended goal, particularly ones without the type of upbringing Tiefenthaler had. She explained this in terms of politics, specifically women’s willingness or reluctance to run for public office. 

“The biggest hurdle to get women to run for office is just that: getting them to run for office,” Coggins said. “Once a woman, or women, do that, the system convinces them and other women that they are qualified for that position and worthy of doing so. It’s a cyclical pattern. How do you expect women to get into power when there are no women in power? Further, how do you do so when a misogynist can beat them with no platform? The solution is more women in power.” 

Many believed Hilary Clinton’s election would have represented the ultimate stepping stone towards narrowing the gender gap in politics. Although Clinton vacillated frequently between emphasizing experience with gender discrimination and shoving it to the side, she embraced her definitive role “to break the glass ceiling” for women in politics. She understood that her accomplishments, specifically those as president, would pave the way for young women and girls with similar aspirations.

“I hope that we will see a woman elected because I think it would send exactly the right historic signal to girls, women as well as boys and men,” Clinton said in Toronto in 2013. 

That message would serve to eliminate what Coggins sees as the ultimate quandary: how do we expect people to develop different expectations of themselves when the pattern of white males holding prestigious positions, titles and labels of success continues?


Twice as Hard, Twice as Good

Coggins—who also grew up on a rural farm, an hour and a half south of Atlanta, GA—found her role model in the editor of her home town newspaper, Kim Madlum, when she was a reporter there during high school.

“It was my first job ever, and it was most likely out of pity,” Coggins said. “Whether I recognized it or not at the time, she was the first female in a position of power that I encountered in my lifetime...I guess I was subconsciously observing her and seeing that a woman could hold that type of position.”

At Wake Forest, where she received her undergraduate degree, Coggins’ advisor, Katy Harriger was a “continental badass.” Though Harriger was the chair Department of Politics and International Affairs, for Coggins, a key part Harriger’s influence was the fact that she rarely ever talked about being a woman in the academic field.

“She really highlights [one of] the two approaches that there are to making it in what we can clearly call ‘a man’s world,’” Coggins said. “One is to call out the unfairness, the wage gap, other obvious examples of structural sexism. The other way, Katie and Kim’s way, was to simply be twice as good.”

From there, Coggins found other key mentors, like her professor at Wake Forest, Jim Simpson, who pushed Coggins to be twice as good, again, without ever mentioning any relevance to gender. 

“If he was ever worried about my prospects in the field, he never brought it up,” Coggins said. “For me, though, the harder, the better. I like the fight. But it never really occurred to me at the time that I might be at a disadvantage because I was a woman. I just knew that there are no shortcuts for hard work.”


Speaking Up

Coggins’ understanding of the two approaches to succeeding in “a man’s world” indicates that there is not just one familial upbringing or version of socialization that unlocks the gates into that world. Women in positions of leadership at CC can tell stories of both: whereas Coggins and Tiefenthaler grew up with an emphasis on hard work that excluded the reality of institutional barriers, Professor of Feminist and Gender Studies Heidi Lewis was raised to understand the intentionally-placed roadblocks she would face in daily life and throughout her education and career. 

“I’ve learned a lot from older black women that I would be attacked at every turn,” Lewis said. “They would literally tell us what people would say behind our backs. They would sit down and tell us. None of the women in my family were professors, but I took what I learned from them and applied it there.”

Lewis’s mentors explained that no one will be there to take care of you, so you have to take care of yourself. Many women are plagued by the idea that people will not like them if they speak up for themselves, whether to overtly defend their worth or to insert their opinion in a class discussion: because women are often conditioned to believe that they reach success not through their intelligence, but through their feminine charm, speaking up annihilates any chance of achieving success and social standing. At least, that is, according to the narrative of sex-appropriate behavior.

“People who want to do harm to you will do it anyway,” Lewis said. “It’s a classic example, but did black people do anything to deserve slavery or avoid doing something to avoid it? No. That’s what they wanted to do, so they did it. At CC, I have to let my students know that I am an expert, and that they must treat me as such. If I didn’t have to work so hard to get over my gender, my race and my age, then maybe I could do the egalitarian, feminist space of equal knowledge. I believe in that, but I can’t perform that and get taken advantage of. My elders taught me how to know my worth and how to defend it.” 

Lewis carries these lessons with her every day. Her understanding of her worth and willingness to defend it quells feelings of insecurity and self-doubt that persistent imposter syndrome can evoke. She explains how, without that robust sense of their worth, people can cultivate blind loyalties to institutions. They believe that they are lucky that an institution invited them to enter the community without recognizing the clear qualifications they had that warranted that invitation. At CC—an institution that, for many privileged students, staff and faculty, can be easy to idealize—Lewis very clearly distinguishes her appreciation for being here from a blind loyalty.

“Institutions get us loyal to them, and then we equate criticism with assault. Imposter syndrome is part of that blind loyalty: ‘I don’t want them to think negatively of me and to take the job away. I don’t want to cause trouble.’ And then when you’re a black woman who is known for causing trouble anyway, they already think I’m angry, so I shouldn’t act that way. I don’t give a damn. I am angry.” 

“Maybe I should stop thinking things and people can be better than they are,” Lewis continued. “But the only way I got better at being a teacher, a mom, a writer was someone telling me or me telling myself where I did poorly and how I could have done better. The only way an institution can get better is someone pointing out its flaws. Imposter syndrome is powerful in quelling that [drive for improvement].”


Breaking the Cycle

At key moments in a woman’s life, she is faced with critical decisions—big or small, consciously or subconsciously—that demand her to choose to act a certain way or choose a career path that has been deemed sex-appropriate. Those decisions are influenced and reinforced by structural barriers built over hundreds of years by a patriarchal society. 

“Even in a place like CC, the image of a faculty member is the movie image: the white male in a tweed blazer. Obviously there are downsides to that image, but if you fit it, you immediately have respect,” Tiefenthlaer said. “Women, people of color, even people who are overweight statistically are rated lower on course evaluations. You just have to work hard to overcome it and use the people and experiences you bring to the table to do so.”

Is working twice as hard enough as a millennial when only 39 percent of respondents in an Ernst & Young survey perceived our generation as hard workers? Is it enough when you are a young African American, a minority group historically stereotyped as lazy? Is it enough when the proper placement of a woman in a patriarchal society is in the kitchen?

It is, when you understand that imposter syndrome is merely a fear. Yes, people may try to impede you along the way for whatever reason—identity or mere egotism. But, as Stoic philosophy dictates, we must focus on the things we can control, and one of those things is our psyche. If we allow ourselves to wallow in a sense of unworthiness and self-consciousness, we prevent ourselves from attaining integrity. Conversely, if we recognize and set aside that which we cannot control and choose to embrace what we can, we can become more thoughtful observers of ourselves. With that solipsistic approach, we can supersede the toxic lust for popularity and carry ourselves with authority. 

Fears do not have to be conquered, or at least managed, alone. We inevitably have a blind spot in analyzing our own character—only others can see us clearly. So embrace the mentors we have at CC, in Colorado Springs and our home communities, and throughout all walks of life. They can work to push and to validate us, eliminating a fear that can so easily consume us.


Part of the Toxic issue