WiSE Words: Imposter Syndrome

I looked around at the women around me. They looked quiet, studious, and were definitely better students than me.

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By Lynn Wang

Art by Annika Hanson

There are some moments in life that deserve to be treasured: true love, getting curved up to a passing grade on the organic chemistry exam, and walking into a room full of strangers to discover that you’re all sisters in the same struggle.

I applied for the WiSE (Women in Science and Engineering) undergraduate fellowship on a whim, at the end of my final exams last winter. I was sure nothing would come of it; I’ve become pretty desensitized to rejection letters over the years. So when I was accepted, I was delighted— and a little intimidated. I wasn’t sure what to expect. How could I, a lowly biochemistry sophomore, have possibly been competent or formidable enough to gain entry into such a selective program? As I stepped into the elevator for our first luncheon a week ago, I remember thinking that I would be tossed out immediately. A pre-med struggling to keep a 3.0 GPA, with no active research projects, surely did not deserve to be given such a special honor, much less a research grant.

I resolutely give credit to the Goddess of Irony that I walked into a first meeting where the topic of choice was imposter syndrome.

The room was mostly quiet when I came in, save for the sound of sandwiches and bags of chips. I looked around at the women around me. They looked quiet, studious, and were definitely better students than me. (A good assumption to make, when you’re the loudest voice in the room.) I recognized Dr. Jessica Parr, my chemistry professor from my second semester of general chemistry, but I might as well have been in a room filled with strangers.

Dr. Parr began our discussion with a few anecdotes from women who, I presume, were just like us once. The programmer who adopted her colleagues’ gung-ho and misogynistic language in an attempt to fit in, terrified that she would be outed as a pretender. The would-be chemist who ultimately shied away from the hard sciences in favor of public health, for fear of being exposed as a fraud. She treated the discussion the way she’d treated general chemistry: she assumed that we knew nothing about the topic, without being patronizing or infantilizing us. She also touched on some issues closer to her own heart, from the Dunning-Kruger effect in action to the dearth of female faculty in USC’s own department of chemistry. It wasn’t to say that men didn’t experience this problem to some extent, she added, just that women seemed to experience it far more than men.

Now, I was modestly familiar with the idea of imposter syndrome— the affliction, common among women, that they are less qualified than they really are and that their successes, position, and past is just an incredible coincidences of lucky breaks and fruitful deceptions. In a way, it’s part of Feminist Literacy 101. And yet it was hard for me to really appreciate how universal this feeling was, especially when I felt the loneliest in my own self-doubt. More than that, I’d never really thought about it. My activism deals primarily with the ramifications of imperialism, the intersections of white supremacy with patriarchy, and queering my perception of the world. Topics like this are certainly present in my consciousness, but they don’t dominate. I won’t disparage the fact that these issues get discussed in the broader scope of feminist discourse— in fact, I am grateful that other women are willing to engage with the work that I leave undone— I just never saw it on my radar.

That being said, it was pretty neat to watch the room crackle and awaken with the warmth of strange women united by a common experience. Dr. Parr was speaking now the hidden language of my own doubts and fears. I watched these reserved, shy women slowly open up about how they, too, felt like they were intruders in a boys’ club, constantly struggling to prove themselves with the fear of humiliation always on their shoulders.

A girl talked about how she was jealous of the boys in her C++ class, who always seemed so confident in their coding with so little effort. We nodded in agreement, and I thought (bitterly) about the time I’d let a boy talk me out of submitting my answer to a question on a group quiz, in favor of his own contrived mathematics. I had been right, by the way, but he’d seemed so confident in his (wrong) answer that I had conceded his point, doubting my own knowledge. We talked about how the impressions of peers so easily dissuaded us from our confidence in our own abilities.

Dr. Parr talked about how some women had difficulty being their own best advocates. “I am being considered for a promotion right now,” she told us. “I’ll admit, it took quite a bit of willpower to convince myself that I should even have applied. I was worried, somehow, that my applying would take the opportunity away from someone who deserved it more.” This was initially perplexing to me. I had taken Dr. Parr’s class for a semester, and I can personally attest to her chops as a teaching professor.

But this was a trend. How many times had we been told to shut up? I can’t even remember a time in my life where nobody was nudging me, in one way or the next, to be smaller, to assume less of myself. I thought about general chemistry a year ago, when my friend told me that my participation in lecture made him feel embarrassed to sit next to me. I had felt shock and mild disgust, but the reigning emotion then had been utter humiliation. Small wonder that we had all come into this room with our heads down and mouths shut, I thought. Everyone in this room had been silenced, made to feel worthless, made to feel like an intruder. Imposter syndrome. What a relief it was to finally put a name on it.

I spoke about how the accomplishments of certain women were viewed differently based on their race. Asian women, I remarked, are expected to be great in STEM fields; when we succeed, it’s just something that’s supposed to happen— like an alkane combusting in the presence of oxygen. The Asian women in the room contributed their own stories about being felt pigeonholed because of their race. “Nobody acknowledges the work you do,” said Nina, a biomedical engineering major. “Even if you worked really hard for that A, it’s treated as a given.”

There was more agreement in the room. For me, this is personal. I struggled in math for years, too shy to ask for help from my peers or my teachers. Whenever I’d expressed that I wasn’t doing well, nobody ever believed me. I was Asian; I was supposed to be good at math. I’ve since gotten better; it’s hard not to after four semesters of college calculus. But I still remember how shameful that was, to fall short in the one thing I was supposed to be good at.

I shouldn’t have been amazed. Realistically, I should have realized that in a country with over 318.4 million people, it was more than likely that I wasn’t the only one who had ever felt like I was pretending to be good at what I did. And maybe I thought that there would be one or two people in the room who felt the same way, but I certainly didn’t think that everyone would.

This is not a treatise on imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a topic that has been covered many times, by many women more experienced, eloquent, and qualified than I. The biggest thing I took away from our discussion came a while after it had finished. I realized that I had sat in that room for over an hour, listening to women very much like me relate to struggles that were very much like mine. And yet, when I left the luncheon, I still found myself thinking that I was alone in my shame, in my self-doubt. For the most part, my classmates still look the same to me. So perhaps the takeaway is this: Self improvement is a nonlinear process. Knowing that there is a problem is only the first step, but the rest takes a great deal of time. While it’s difficult to shake feelings that have been around for years, if not entire lives, I’m confident that one day we’ll all beat imposter syndrome.

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