Female and early-career academics feel like imposters in some disciplines

The more an academic discipline is perceived to require raw talent or ‘brilliance’, the more women and early-career academics feel professionally inadequate—like ‘impostors’—finds a new study of United States academics by a team of psychology researchers.

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Matthew Hammond joined New York University (NYU) study leader Melis Muradoglu, and her colleague Professor Andrei Cimpian, Princeton University’s Sarah-Jane Leslie, and University of Edinburgh’s Zachary Horne, to better understand how impostor phenomenon (the psychological term for what is sometimes labelled ‘impostor syndrome’) is manifested in academia.

The results, which appear in the Journal of Educational Psychology, were especially pronounced among women from racial and ethnic groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education and academia (that is, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino/a, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Other Pacific Islander).

Dr Hammond, from Te Kura Mātai Hinengaro—School of Psychology is interested in why inequalities persist, even in countries like the US and Aotearoa New Zealand that are considered to have low inequality.

“As part of this, I have a lot of interest in beliefs that do not seem connected to reality.

“In this research we showed that academics are much more likely to feel like impostors when they are in fields that are perceived to need some sort of inherent genius, and this is stronger for academics who are women or from underrepresented ethnic groups in academia,” says Dr Hammond.

NYU doctoral candidate and lead author of the paper Melis Muradoglu says, “Based on previous research, it is likely that women from these groups have stronger impostor feelings in brilliance-oriented fields because they are targeted by negative gender, racial, and ethnic stereotypes about their intellect.

“Many high-achieving individuals feel inadequate despite evidence of their competence and success,” adds Andrei Cimpian, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the paper’s senior author. “Our study shows these sentiments are more likely to emerge in certain contexts—namely, those where brilliance is emphasised—so efforts should be focused on how higher education can create environments where all academics feel capable of succeeding.”

In the Journal of Educational Psychology work, the researchers sought to better understand how the impostor phenomenon—a feeling of intellectual inadequacy despite evidence of competence and success—is manifested in academia, where intellectual ability is at a high premium.

To do so, they analysed survey responses of nearly 5,000 academics (faculty [tenured, tenure-track, and non-tenure-track], postdoctoral fellows, medical residents, and graduate students) from a total of nine public and private US universities and representing more than 80 fields. These included the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and medicine.

The survey asked participants to rate their level of experiences of impostor feelings (e.g. ‘Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack’) and their field’s brilliance orientation (e.g. ‘Personally, I think that being a top scholar of [my discipline] requires a special aptitude that just can’t be taught’).

In addition to the study findings reported above, regardless of gender, career stage, race or ethnicity, academics who reported more intense impostor feelings also reported feeling less connected to and accepted by colleagues, and less confidence in their ability to succeed in the future, pointing to potential ways in which impostor experiences may limit academics’ success.

“While we have to be careful to generalise across countries, the university structures in the US and NZ are relatively similar, including the relative representations of gender and ethnic minority groups across different disciplines,” says Dr Hammond.

“I would predict that impostor phenomenon follows the same pattern in which it would be higher in academics in NZ who are women or non-binary and also higher in academics who are from underrepresented ethnic groups.”

The researchers stress that while the impostor phenomenon is often understood and portrayed as an individual affliction, the findings illustrate that impostor experiences are a function of the contexts that academics navigate.

“Impostor phenomenon has been linked with lower job performance and job satisfaction, as well as employee burnout,” adds Dr Hammond, “A future step is to work on ways to prevent these negative outcomes.”