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Feeling Like a Fraud? Imposter Syndrome vs. Incompetence and Why Women in STEM Get Hit Hard

Ever felt like you've somehow tricked your way into your success? Like you're constantly on the verge of being exposed as a complete phony? If you're a high-achieving woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), this feeling might be all too familiar. But hold on, before you spiral into self-doubt, let's unpack the difference between imposter syndrome and genuine incompetence.

The Imposter Within: A Psychological Trick

The term "imposter syndrome" was first coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978 in their paper "The Imposter Phenomenon in Successful Professional Women" ([Imposter Phenomenon in Successful Professional Women, Clance & Imes, 1978]). They described it as a pattern of behavior where high-achieving individuals persistently doubt their abilities and accomplishments, fearing they are not as competent as others perceive them to be.


Imposter syndrome versus Incompetence
Imposter vs. Incompetence in STEM

Think of it like an internal gremlin whispering in your ear, downplaying your achievements, and attributing success to luck or external factors. It might make you discount positive feedback, dismiss praise, and constantly strive for perfection, never feeling quite "good enough."


The consequences? Paralysis by analysis, fear of taking risks, and downplaying your achievements. It's a recipe for career stagnation and missed opportunities.


The Other Side of the Coin: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Now, let's contrast this with the Dunning-Kruger effect also known as the Armchair Quarterback Syndrome. Identified by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in their 1999 paper "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" ([Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, Dunning, Kruger, 1999]), this phenomenon describes the tendency of unskilled people to overestimate their abilities.


Unlike the self-deprecating imposter, someone experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect might boast about their (lack of) expertise, creating frustration for those around them.


The Dunning-Kruger effect can create a toxic work environment and hinder learning and growth.


The Imposter and the Woman in STEM: A Match Made in Stereotype?

So, why does imposter syndrome seem to plague so many high-achieving women in STEM fields? Here's the thing: research suggests it might not be inherent to the individual, but rather a response to a biased environment.


A study published in the journal "Sex Roles" by Jessica Huang et al. in 2018 ([The Imposter Phenomenon and Its Relationship to Self-Esteem and Career Satisfaction in Women in STEM Fields, Huang et al., 2018]) found that women in STEM reported higher levels of imposter syndrome compared to men. This could be due to the stereotype threat, where women internalize the negative perception that they don't belong in STEM fields, leading to self-doubt and anxiety about proving their competence.


Imagine Christina, a brilliant computer scientist who constantly doubts her abilities. She might attribute her success to factors like luck or affirmative action, overlooking her hard work and talent. This could be because the environment she works in constantly reinforces the stereotype that women are somehow less qualified in STEM. Microaggressions, a lack of female role models, and an atmosphere that prioritizes the "brogrammer" stereotype all contribute to this feeling of being an outsider.


Constantly navigating a space where subtle (or not-so-subtle) messages imply you're the exception, not the rule, can feed even the tiniest seeds of doubt one might have. Feeling like an imposter becomes a self-protective mechanism, a way to brace for potential rejection or failure.


So, is imposter syndrome a personal failure or a symptom of a larger systemic issue? 


The answer is likely both. 


Breaking Free from the Imposter: Strategies for You

Feeling the imposter pinch? Don't despair! Here are FOUR strategies to silence your inner gremlin:

  1. Reframe Your Achievements:  Did you land that promotion because of sheer luck? Absolutely not! Acknowledge the skills and hard work that got you there. Create a brag folder (physical or digital) to document your accomplishments, big and small. When self-doubt creeps in, revisit this folder as a reminder of your awesomeness.

  2. Challenge Your Negative Thoughts:  Catch yourself downplaying your success. Ask yourself, "Would I talk this way to a friend?"  Instead, reframe negative thoughts into more realistic and empowering ones. For example, instead of "I got lucky on that presentation," try "My preparation and clear communication skills paid off." Learn more about challenging your Inner critic and strengthening you Inner Nurturer here.

  3. Celebrate Small Wins:   Don't wait for the big promotion to feel proud. Recognize and celebrate your everyday wins, no matter how small. Accomplishing a challenging task? Finishing a complex project? Give yourself a high five!

  4. Seek Support:  Talk to other women in STEM fields. You'd be surprised how many successful women experience imposter syndrome. Sharing your struggles can be incredibly validating and help you realize you're not alone.

Long-Term Solutions: Changing the System, One Step at a Time

Here's the good news: we can work towards a future where imposter syndrome is less prevalent, especially for women in STEM. Here are FOUR ways to create long-term systemic change:

  1. Mentorship Programs:  Connect experienced women with aspiring ones. Mentorship provides invaluable guidance and shows younger women they're not alone.

  2. Unconscious Bias Training:  Educate everyone on unconscious biases that can hold women back. This fosters a more inclusive and supportive work environment.

  3. Celebrate Female Leaders:   Highlight the achievements of women in STEM. Seeing successful role models inspires younger generations and combats stereotypes. LM (Linda Macelova) consulting's mission is to bring forward the hidden female role models in STEM. Learn about these brilliant minds and get inspired!

  4. Work-Life Balance Initiatives:   Support policies that enable women to manage their careers and personal lives effectively. This reduces stress and empowers women to reach their full potential.


imposter syndrome is a symptom, not a disease.
Imposter Syndrome as a symptom

Conclusion: You Are Enough

Feeling like an imposter can be incredibly isolating, but remember, you're not alone. Millions of women in STEM battle this internal voice. The good news is that imposter syndrome doesn't have to define you. By implementing the strategies mentioned above and advocating for systemic change, we can create a future where brilliant women in STEM can reach their full potential and shatter the glass ceiling.


If you're struggling with imposter syndrome and feel stuck in your career, consider professional help. Linda Macelova Consulting offers the  Career Metamorphosis Online Career Coaching Program, designed specifically for women in STEM. This comprehensive program equips you with the tools and strategies to conquer imposter syndrome, unlock your full potential, and achieve your career goals.


Visit the website to learn more about all services and take charge of your future.


Together, let's rewrite the narrative. You are enough. You belong. And the world needs your brilliance in STEM.

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