Back in July, I received an email from a lovely woman named Jaclyn, asking me to take part in a campaign called the “What I See” Project. According to the press release, WISP, as we shall call it from now on, is ‘a global online platform that recognizes and amplifies women’s voices. Through each person’s unique and honest answer to the universal question “what do you see when you look in the mirror?”, women from all over the world can be empowered by relating to each other’s words.’ For the launch of the campaign, Jaclyn aimed to get 100 bloggers, including me, and 18 uber-successful ambassadors to talk about how they see themselves, in the hope of inspiring many more women to do the same. My first thought was ‘Empowered? Seriously? Are we successful businesswomen here, or are we the Spice Girls?’. My second was ‘Well this sounds like a very nice idea, and I’ll definitely do it because she’s promised that it will bring some more traffic to my blog, but I don’t see how a big group hug is going to help women overcome life’s prejudices’.
Now, I understand that making the above paragraph public is tantamount to admitting that what I see when I look in the mirror is a cynical, sarcastic cow – which probably isn’t too far from the truth – but bear with me, reader.
When I eventually visited the WISP website, I was surprised by what I found. Hundreds of women from all walks of life spoke openly about how they saw themselves. I found myself feeling amazed at how much I had in common with these women, inspired by the things they had to say, in awe of their honesty and courage, and excited that I’d been invited to be one of them. Perilously close to actually feeling ‘empowered’, I quickly stepped away from my laptop. This is a great project, and I’m really proud to be involved.
So, I started thinking about ‘what I see when I look in the mirror’. You could go on all day about this kind of stuff – therapists bank on it. I’d have to be brief. I’d been asked to take part as a female scientist and blogger, so I decided to talk about how I act in and out of work. You can check out my video (*cringe*) here. I can’t embed it into the blog because then you wouldn’t have to visit the WISP site and that would defeat the point of the exercise, so, off you go.
Watching my video back (from through my fingers), it’s clear that what I’m talking about, in a non-too eloquent way, is a front I put up to try and hide my insecurities about my ability to do my job- an experience known as imposter phenomenon. So what exactly is imposter phenomenon? Why does it come about? And why is it so prevalent?
What is this imposter phenomenon, then?
Imposter phenomenon, IP, describes a state whereby a person believes that they are not capable of doing their job, despite evidence to the contrary. They worry that they will be exposed as a ‘fraud’, and fired. Achievements and goalposts reached are dismissed as being due to luck or to casting the wool over the eyes of colleagues and superiors, rather than the due to ability of the individual. IP was first documented in 1978, in a cohort of 150 successful women from academic backgrounds. The study was strictly observational, and from my un-specialist point of view seems keen to put the women involved into easy-to-label boxes and chalk it up to familial and social expectations of high-flying women. However, it raised interesting questions about exactly how prevalent these types of feelings were, and why these seemingly irrational thoughts arise.
Why would anyone feel like that?
Unfortunately, a quick trawl through the literature shows that there has been little robust research into the phenomenon since. In fact, there even still seems to be some debate about what feelings/behaviours define IP. Nonetheless, the little research that has been done tends to suggest that IP occurs due to an inability to internalise success; compliments are written off as phony or inaccurate, whilst achievements are minimized or written off entirely as down to luck, or to working harder than colleagues. Theories about why these kinds of irrational thoughts arise are varied. Some studies, such as the 1978 paper, have suggested that familial pressures are important. This hypothesis states that sufferers tend to come from backgrounds where either they were expected to be the brightest, and told that learning should come naturally, or were told that another sibling was the ‘clever’ one, and fought to exceed the low expectations of them. However, multiple studies into this line of thought have come up with varying results, indicating that perhaps family background isn’t responsible. An alternative theory is that certain personality traits such as perfectionism or neuroticism increase the chance of IP. It has even been suggested that some people who claim to suffer imposter feelings are in fact implementing a clever social strategy to appear modest and moderate expectations of themselves.
One aspect of IP that is well studied is its prevalence among professional women. It seems that the phenomenon is astoundingly common. For example, a recent study of female Austrian PhD students indicated that a third had moderate to strong imposter feelings. In another study, 41% of female medics in training for GP positions were found to exhibit IP. What’s more, in recent years, talk about the phenomenon has cropped up again and again in the media-at-large. It seems that feelings that were once kept under wraps are now being spoken about.
Interestingly, one ambassador for the WISP campaign (check out her video below) has talked openly about her imposter feelings in the past. Professor Dame Athene Donald is a professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University, and a champion of women in STEM subjects. In a post on her blog, she spoke about how she and several of her equally successful friends suffer from intense bouts of IP. It seems mad that someone who has won as many accolades as Donald could suffer from the same insecurities as those lower down the career ladder, but all the (albeit scant) evidence to date indicates that this phenomenon is prevalent amongst those at the top of their game.
Do men feel like frauds too?
In her blog, Donald asked whether men also suffer from IP, as research into the phenomenon tends to focus on women. She received a resounding response from male academics confirming that they, too, have bouts of imposter feelings. This is backed up by research – the medics-in-training study I mentioned before found that 24% of male respondents felt like imposters, whilst several other articles (reviewed here) indicate that IP affects everyone, although it tends to be less common among men. It seems surprising that something so little-understood could be so common, but it stands to reason that people are not keen to talk about their feelings of inadequacy. It seems that, on the inside, we all feel like imposters.
Despite researching the phenomenon and speaking about it with friends and colleagues, I still feel like a fraud at times. Writing this very blog, I wondered whether I should stick to a safer subject, lest I draw attention to my inadequacies and inadvertently get myself ‘found out’. Reading the literature, I began to panic about the fact that the research conducted focused on successful women who have myriad, unarguable accomplishments, whereas for each ‘achievement’ I’ve made during my academic career, I can tally in my head a piece of luck or lapse of judgment by a superior that made it possible. Clearly, in this case, knowledge is not power. Maybe projects like WISP are a good way to start an open dialogue about the phenomenon. Through discussion and support, hopefully people with IP can come to realise, if only in a small corner at the back of their mind, that they are not alone, they are not incapable, and they are not imposters.
More info about IP and the ‘What I See’ project…
Does what I’ve described sound familiar? This crude test will help you determine whether you have feelings associated with IP (My score suggested that have frequent imposter feelings). If you do have imposter feelings, this article about the phenomenon has some coping strategies that may help you overcome your worries.
If you’ve enjoyed reading about my experience of taking part in the WISP, and would like to hear about it from another point of view, check out one of tomorrow’s contributors, Ritu, who is a life coach.
Finally, if you’re a woman and have been inspired by the ‘What I see’ project, why not get involved yourself? Upload a video of your answer to the question ‘What do you see when you look in the mirror?’ to the WISP website, and you could be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to the swanky launch event at the Science museum in London on the 1st of October.