Impostor syndrome: two-thirds of female scholars suffer badly

Self-perceived levels of impostor syndrome in women remain equally high among senior academics, study finds

February 20, 2019
Source: istock

Two-thirds of female scholars experience frequent or intense feelings of being an “impostor” in academia, a major new survey suggests.

Asked about their sense of intellectual self-doubt, some 95 per cent of 1,326 women in higher education who responded to a survey on “impostor syndrome” admitted characteristics showing at least moderate levels of the phenomenon, according to a paper published in Studies in Higher Education.

Some 46 per cent of respondents were identified as having frequent feelings of impostor syndrome, while 20 per cent suffered intense and recurring fears of being exposed as an intellectual fraud, according to the study, which was written by researchers from the University of Cincinnati and Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

Impostor syndrome was just as likely to affect women with tenured faculty positions as those doing PhDs or filling postdoctoral research roles, according to the study, which received responses from universities across the world.

There was no difference in the level of impostor syndrome experienced by women in different types of institutions – for example, community colleges, teaching-focused universities and elite research-led institutions, said the study’s co-author Ashley Vaughn, a Cincinnati social scientist who is now a visiting assistant professor at Miami University in Ohio.

“This is a global phenomenon, not just something affecting Western educational institutions or more junior faculty,” Dr Vaughn told Times Higher Education.

Those individuals who credited their current position to “luck” or professional connections, rather than their own ability, tended to show higher levels of impostor syndrome, explained Dr Vaughn.

In other cases, those with high levels of impostor syndrome would claim that their position had been achieved only because they published with a high-achieving peer or supervisor.

The study also found that academics with high levels of impostor syndrome were more stressed and unhappier than those with only moderate symptoms.

“It is not just that they feel a bit insecure – it is really impacting on their lives,” said Dr Vaughn.

Despite its apparently endemic level among female academics, impostor syndrome remained a taboo subject, added Dr Vaughn, who wants scholars to open up about these feelings.

Expressing self-doubt or insecurity, however, ran contrary to a culture in which academics were reluctant to admit any kind of failure or flaw, she said.

“We are so focused on accomplishments [and] stacking our CVs with achievements, we never stop to admit when things haven’t gone perfectly,” she said.


Print headline: Impostor syndrome endemic among women

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Reader's comments (4)

To be honest, I'm not surprised. As a female university administrator, it's endemic here too . . .
Why only female? I am a male ECR and have the same feelings and issues because of the relentless and never ending scoring and evaluation activities in academia (in the UK compounded by REF/TEF etc.). It increasingly distracts attention from the actual purpose of being an academic and shifts it toward playing the reputation game as an end in itself. Could it be that many men simply do not admit to their vulnerabilities even in such anonymous surveys or lack the self-awareness and reflexive inclinations because it goes against their deeply seated concept of what it means to be a man, I wonder?
Hi Academic Somewhere, Thanks for your question. This study specifically looks at female academics, as the inspiration for the study was the amount of imposter syndrome talk I saw in social media groups for female academics. We ARE currently conducting a study on both men and women in academia, as well as other variables (first generation student status, field, etc.). We welcome participants for the study! Dr. Ashley Vaughn
Universities provide individuals an authorization to speak; their affiliation signals expertise. There is, however, no socially equivalent requirement for anyone to listen. So you teach stats to undergraduates the boys always know more than the 'other girls' in the room including you. Where does that come from? You have the power to mark their papers and they have the power to say you are a crap teacher in the annual evaluation ritual. Double blind refereeing ensures your gender is unknown to the researcher ..except the small world of special expertise and all that social media means its pretty easy to spot who the author must/is likely to be and to double down on the gendered....."why do I have to listen to her."