Impostor Syndrome Prevalent Among Women in STEM

Girl with Beaker

March 26, 2014

Maria Klawe can claim many firsts: She was the first female head of computer science and dean of science at the University of British Columbia, the first female dean of engineering at Princeton and is now the first female president of Harvey Mudd College. One might expect Klawe to feel rather accomplished, but according to an editorial she recently penned for Future Tense -- a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation and Slate Magazine -- she wakes up most mornings feeling like a failure. She says this so-called imposter syndrome is common among highly successful people, but seems to be a particular challenge among women in the male-dominated science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, field. A recent study suggests she has a point.

Whatever she has already accomplished, Klawe writes that her life goal is to help create a STEM culture that is supportive of everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. She focuses her energy primarily on the computer science field, in part because it is her field, but also because it is the only STEM field where participation by women has actually decreased -- and significantly -- over the last several decades.

Klawe's observations about women in STEM are not precisely new. Kathy Mulvani, senior director of Cisco Corporate Affairs, noted in an editorial she wrote for The Huffington Post that at least one study found that one-third of women in private-sector STEM positions said they felt "extremely isolated at work." Perhaps this might explain why, according to the non-profit firm Next City, women earn less than 40 percent of STEM degrees despite the fact that women in STEM make one-third more on average than women working in non-STEM fields.

The underrepresentation of women in STEM has been covered extensively by news outlets and the blogosphere as of late, and there are a number of efforts underway to correct it. According to a separate Future Tense column written by Audrey Iffert-Saleem, adviser to the vice president for entrepreneurship and innovation at Arizona State University, several companies have launched toys designed to "feminize" science and math, including Mattel's architect Barbie or Lego's "Friends" series of toys. The UK recently launched a campaign called "Science: It's a Girl Thing," though it was promptly spoofed by women actually working in STEM who found the message offensive. Even President Barack Obama has called for new initiatives that might attract more women to STEM disciplines, reports Next City.

Iffert-Saleem notes that it is still too early to tell whether toys and marketing campaigns designed to encourage more girls toward STEM-focused courses and careers are actually effective, but she speculates that the situation is far too complicated for seemingly quick fixes. As for Klawe, her institution recently won recognition for bringing its share of female computer science majors to 40 percent, an accomplishment she says earned her a spot on Fortune's list of the "World's Greatest Leaders." She said she hopes that with the right encouragement and mentorship, accomplished people -- including women in male-dominated fields -- can overcome feeling undeserving of success.

"Imposter syndrome (is) usually a condition for life," write Klawe, but a treatable one.

Compiled by Aimee Hosler


"Impostoritis: A Lifelong, but Treatable, Condition," slate.com, Maria Klawe, March 24, 2014, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/03/imposter_syndrome_how_the_president_of_harvey_mudd_college_copes.html

"Lipstick and Nail Files Won't Draw Women Into Science," slate.com, March 21, 2014, Audrey Iffert-Saleem, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2014/03/science_it_s_a_girl_thing_and_other_flawed_attempts_to_bring_women_into.html

"One-Third Of Women In STEM Said They Felt Isolated At Work. Here's How We're Helping," huffingtonpost.com, March 4, 2014, Kathy Mulvany, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-mulvany/how-the-case-of-soso-luni_b_4876155.html

"Where Cities Fit into Obama's Plan for Promoting Women in the Workforce," nextcity.org, March 21, 2014, Bill Bradley, http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/where-cities-fit-into-obamas-plan-promoting-women-workforce

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