Men in academia are at a higher risk of anxiety, depression and burnout from “impostor syndrome” than their female peers, according to a new study.
The research, which the authors say is one of the few to look at delusions of inadequacy in established academics, finds that a questioning of expertise by colleagues or students is the most common trigger for these feelings among university faculty.
It also finds that women are more likely than men to try to understand their experiences and are at lower risk of any adverse effects.
Impostor syndrome is the term used to describe a set of feelings that includes the fear of being unworthy of success and not as good as others, and being constantly afraid of being exposed as a fraud.
Holly Hutchins, associate professor of human resources development at the University of Houston, and Hilary Rainbolt, a graduate assistant at the same institution, looked at the events that triggered impostor syndrome in 16 academics at differing ranks working in a large public research-intensive university and a medical teaching university in the US.
They found that the most common trigger for scholars’ impostor feelings was the questioning of their expertise by colleagues or students. Comparing themselves negatively with colleagues and even securing successes also sparked feelings of inadequacies among the group.
During interviews with the study participants, Dr Hutchins and Ms Rainbolt asked the academics how they coped with such experiences and what universities could do to support staff.
They found that men and women used different techniques to reduce the stress associated with impostor feelings. “By far, women faculty relied more on social support as a way to mitigate or help understand their imposter experiences,” they say.
“Several women also described engaging in positive self-talk, regular exercising, and the importance of recognizing success in other areas of their life to offset their work-related imposter concerns,” they add in the paper, which was published in Human Resources Development International.
By contrast, only one of the male academics described using social support to help mitigate his impostor concerns. “Overwhelmingly, male faculty reported using avoidant coping methods such as dissociating from their imposter feelings through alcohol or other substance abuse, working harder, or just not addressing their imposter thoughts,” they say.
“Given male faculty reluctance to use active coping methods to assuage imposter concerns, they are likely at higher risk of the adverse effects (anxiety, depression, burnout),” the authors add.
The participants say that universities could better help academics deal with impostor feelings by offering mentoring and small discussion groups to normalise imposter feelings, as well as clarifying the metrics used to evaluate academics’ performance.