The Culture of Genius and Women Impostors in Academia
As a woman who has “made it” into Academia, by surmounting both the gender and origin barriers, I believe I have to step out of the “safe” silence that neglect the voice of many women in Academia.
The gender gap is still a prominent issue in Academia, especially in STEM. Women, despite universities and government policies against discrimination, remain vastly under-represented in the ivory.
Women, compared to male peers, earn less, take longer to get tenure, occupy fewer top tier positions, receive fewer grants and scholarships, just to name a few.
On top of all that, women in Academia are expected to work harder, produce more research, participate in multiple projects, take on more service and teaching hours, nurture their students, listen and show compassion for their colleagues, and outperform male academics, to just maybe get equal chances and treatment.
This constant (unequal) pressure women academics have to cope with it’s exhausting. This (un)justified quest for fair recognition of their work is probably one of the main causes for the impostor syndrome, and consequently burnout and depression.
Unfortunately, this is still the reality for many women in different fields and career paths.
This inequality of gender has its deepest roots in the encoding of our society about who has and who hasn’t; who is the active giver and who is the passive receiver; who is born with, and who is born without.
I grew up in a “macho” society. A society that had decided the roles for men and women even before I could think there was a choice to make. Women were nurturing teachers, men were prominent professors. Women were caring nurses, men were distinguished doctors. Women were applied seamstresses, men were fearless fashion designers. I could go on with the list, but I think I’ve made my point.
Now, I’m not saying that being a teacher or a nurse is of less merit than being a professor or a doctor. This has nothing to do with merit, impact, or status of those careers.
The position of women has been determined upon what the (macho) society believes fit our female intrinsic characteristics: nurturing, caring, loving, applied, giving. These, of course, tied to our “natural” role and biological ability to carry and give birth to a child.
Not only our role as women would be to carry, give birth to, nurture, love and take care of our child, but to carry, nurture, love, and take care of society, and specifically our male counterparts.
As a young adult I ‘d always been told by my male relatives to “make my way up”, “study and work two times harder”, and “don’t let any men stand in my way or decide for me”, because “You need to be independent and tough.”. But, I never actually realized that being a woman would mean not being a man. I never thought not being a man would mean that much for the rest of my career.
I’ll always remember an expression that shocked me and got on my nerves every time I heard it: “El hombre propone y la Mujer dispone”. Translated to English will be something like: Men make the (sexual) proposal and women dispose — determines the course of the event. Women are always the passive object of the story.
Being a woman in our society, and especially one like Latin America, is a synonym of “not having the balls” or “not wearing the pants”.
This fight — or competition, if you prefer the term — with men, starts at a very young age, when a little girl realizes that compared to her brothers, cousins, or father, she is missing something.
The penis envy
“Why I don’t have a penis, mom?”
Sigmund Freud claimed that women suffer from Penis envy, I’m not here to judge how misogynist he was or not. But it might reflect how our society has coded men as possessing (a penis)— and thus all the economic, political and societal privileges it might come with — and women as lacking (a penis) and being a passive object that needs completion by the active (male) subject.
Our culture has for long, unfortunately, rewarded men for what they have and devalue women for what they (don’t) have. Some classical examples are the casual statements “Grow a pair” or “Stop being a pussy”. Feminity or traits that have (wrongly) been associated with femininity are seen as weakness and pejorative traits both in women and men. Here again the statements like “don’t cry like a little girl” suggesting that boys are not allowed to express their emotions or “you throw like a girl” to imply that women are weak. Men are frequently mocked when they leave any “men-business” decisions to their wives or women colleagues and are (miss)treated as “pussy” or as “not wearing the breeches”. Apparently, women are always nurturing and caring mothers, but men are authoritarian and strict fathers. At least, this is what our encoding is telling us.
And this codification that we have accepted — or suffer from — has since then characterized women’s physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization needs.
The impostor syndrome
The impostor syndrome refers to “high-achieving people who have difficulty internalizing their accomplishments and who fear that they will be exposed as a fraud.”
Psychologist Pauline Clance and colleague Suzanne Imes coined for the first time the term “impostor phenomenon” in 1978 in a study they conducted with women patients. They gave this name to high-performing but inwardly anxious women that did not experience an internal sense of success.
“Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact, they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. […] In other words, these women find innumerable means of negating any external evidence that contradicts their belief that they are, in reality, unintelligent.”
Clane and Imes identified six characteristics present in “impostors” individuals:
- The Impostor Cycle: confronting an achievement-related task leads to anxiety, self-doubt, and worry, which leads to over-preparation and/or procrastination, followed by accomplishment, a feeling of relief, the discounting of positive feedback, followed by perceived fraudulence, increased self-doubt, depression, and anxiety.
- The need to be special, to be the very best, a perfectionist.
- Superwoman or Superman aspects: the urge for taking on every possible task, leading to workaholism and expression of a need for external validation.
- Fear of failure.
- Denial of competence and discounting praise.
- Fear and guilt about success.
Women as impostors
Because of (our) society’s encoding of women as eternal pursuers of the “penis privilege”, women have been forced — or encouraged — to build a facade and assume a (false) identity to build confidence and exercise authority.
While many studies have suggested the prevalence of the Impostor Phenomenon — to avoid the interpretation of dealing with an illness — in women and minority populations, there is strong evidence that it has nothing to do with gender, race, or any intrinsic characteristic of the individual. Rather, it has to do with the environment they evolve in. And I will explain these further later.
But first, let’s just assume that in fact, women were more likely to “suffer” from the Impostor Phenomenon just because of their birth gender.
Assuming this would mean that from a “genetical” point of view women, and any other marginalized group, are unsuitable to cope with the high pressure and competitiveness that characterizes top-management positions or any other career path. In that manner, we will be agreeing that women are incapable of acknowledging their talents and too shy to pursue high goals and achievements at the risk of being a failure.
We, then, would be saying that women fear not only failure but also any potential success. We would be saying that they lack self-confidence.
By assuming this, we would be proving that the (ill) encoding of our society as men having and women lacking is true.
Then, one question arises: who was first, the egg or the chicken?
A more plausible and less indulgent explanation would be that given by Professor Shan Slank, where environmental factors, and especially the culture of “genius” —which is largely bounded with sexist and racist ideologies — contribute and promote the impostor syndrome in women and other marginalized groups.
The culture of genius
The culture of genius, as termed by Mary Murphy and Carol Dweck, describes an organizational (and societal) culture where intelligence is conceived as a fixed entity of individuals that cannot be changed or incremented. Those who are born intelligent are therefore more suitable for intellectual job positions, while those who don’t possess the intelligence are doomed. In this kind of environment, people perceive genius and brilliance as more valuable characteristics than intrinsic motivation, passion for growth, and learning.
And the culture and environment in which we evolve— as women, men, or humans in general — not only influence the way we perceive ourselves (i.e. as intelligent or not) but also how we perceive and evaluate others.
If talent and intelligence are (wrongly) attributed to male gender because they have historically — and here again we are generalizing and erasing one important part of the history — occupied intellectual and top management positions, there is no wonder why women (and men) assume an identity that fits with the culture in which they evolve.
Thus, many women and men assume a behavior that fits with male attributes — here again wrongly coined, as I believe there is no such thing as male or female attributes, but our society has coded it as if (i.g. Feminine vs masculine culture traits in Hofstede work) — even when those behaviors go against their natural personality. An example of this is when women use a bass voice tone to show authority when her normal tone is rather treble. Or, when we hide the effort put into a task as we fear it’ll be seen as a weakness. Genius wouldn’t need to put that much effort.
In cultures where “talent” is innate, we think of our achievements and success as results of chance and/or external factors. We constantly compare ourselves to “talented” individuals that occupy positions at which we aspire to, leading us to underestimate our talent and skills. But, since we want to triumph and fit in society, we act as if we were talented enough to attain those goals. The famous “Fake it until you make it”, which doesn’t imply we are faking our intelligence or talent, but that we think we are faking it. And thus we enter an eternal loop.
This facade eventually triggers a dissonance and a sense of fraud, and in the long term might harm self-esteem and cause depression and burn-out.
Impostor syndrome and women in academia
Unconscious and unintentional biases against women in Academia are not something new, unfortunately. Several studies both in social and science fields show that women underrepresentation and discrimination in Academia is not anecdotical.
We have been witnessing a proven trend of women prematurely leaving higher education and Academia. One of the prime reasons for this is the disparity in terms of experiences and opportunities for faculty tenure positions between men and women.
The Academic career path, and especially in STEM disciplines, is culturally understood to require “brilliance” or “raw talent”. This culture of Genius practiced in Academia only reinforces the disparity. Studies show that fields with a greater belief in the natural and inherent “brilliance” required for research (philosophy, math, physics, music composition) had a far lower percentage of female PhDs.
Likewise, several studies show — and here again is far from being just an anecdotical conclusion — that women (and men) who were attending graduate school in a male-dominated department reported lower levels of academic self-concept than those in more gender-balanced programs. Or that women faculty seem to struggle with extreme perfectionist tendencies, which inhibits our ability to feel fulfilled by our endeavors and our ability to produce academic work at the same rates as our male peers. This unjustified modesty leads to our (in)ability to cite our own work and cite that of male peers more, even when ours is more relevant.
Not surprisingly, studies also show that women have to provide more evidence than men to be seen as equally competent; we perform more service and teaching in the quest for gaining respect. We are indirectly accepting additional gaps in salary as service and teaching are (often) less valued than research.
Women academics are not only constantly struggling with disparity and discrimination, but we are falling in the (ill) encoding of our society and assuming we lack something to thrive and stay in Academia.
We are trapped in this ill binary systematic view of gender, genius, and talent.
We are the impostor. This becomes even more endangering as we see women in power positions to continue “nurturing” the gender gap in Academia.
Now, we can be impostors. Many of us are. We are not alone.
The feeling of not belonging, of being a fraud is, unfortunately, something many women and men have to deal with at least once in our lives.
However, we should not forget we are wearing a mask.
We have to remember how we got where we are. The challenges and obstacles we surmounted. The unfairness and (miss)treatment that we survive. We have to do our job right and reverse the course of the ship before we hit again the iceberg. As women who “make it” into Academia, we have the responsibility to raise our voice for the women who can’t. We may have won our battle, but there is still much to fight for. We can’t stop now. We won’t stop now. It’s time to pull down the facade and unlearn the mistaken codes of gender.
- Mason et al. (2013) Do Babies Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower Rutgers University Press,. JSTOR.
- Gasser et Chaffer (2014) ,“Career Development of Women in Academia: Traversing the Leaky Pipeline” The Professional Counselor
- Center for WorkLife Law (2015) “Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women of Color in Science”
- King et al. (2017) “Men set their own cites high: gender and self-citation across fields and over time” Socius.
- Leslie et al. (2015) “Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines” Science
- Guarino et Borden (2017) “Faculty Service Loads and Gender: Are Women Taking Care of the Academic Family?” Research in Higher Education
- Clance PR, Imes SA (1978) The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice 15:241–247
- Clance PR, O’Toole MA (1987) The imposter phenomenon: an internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Women Ther 6:3, 51–64
- Ruti M. (2018) Penis Envy and Other Bad Feelings The Emotional Costs of Everyday Life, Columbia Unniversity Press.
Maria Angel Ferrero is Assistant Professor in Finance and Entrepreneurship at the University of Montpellier School of Management (IAE), in France. Her teaching pedagogy is based on active learning approaches and the use of technology and gamification. She is highly involved with the entrepreneurial ecosystem in France and Colombia always in the quest for providing students with better entrepreneurial education and learning experience. Her cross-disciplinary research brings together behavioral finance, psychology and entrepreneurship theories and approaches to explore the behavior and thinking of entrepreneurs. In 2016 she was awarded the prize for Best Ph.D. Thesis in Corporate Finance awarded by the French National Association of Finance. She runs a blog on Medium.comwhere she shares her toughts on education, science and pedagogical innovation. You can find her in social media twitter @mangelferrero , Medium @miss.startup , Instagram @miss.startup
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