Scroll below to learn how imposter syndrome affects women in STEM and how to prevent it from holding you back

What Is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is the feeling of inadequacy or incapability despite being evidently successful or having others recognize your success. It is something to which many girls and young women in STEM fields can unfortunately relate.  Subsequently, it can make you feel uncomfortable when someone commends your work or you win an award because you don’t think you deserve it. It can cause you to feel as though you’re always just ‘winging it’ and never really deserving of your success. 

How did I win this award? There must be some mistake.

Someone else would be much better qualified for the job I was just offered.

These thoughts stem from imposter syndrome and are not reflective of the truth. 

Who Experiences Imposter Syndrome?

Dr. Valerie Young, PhD, an expert on imposter syndrome, estimates that 70% of people have experienced the feeling and that it affects people of all ages and backgrounds1. This is supported by other research that found that women and non-binary people, especially those from underrepresented groups, tend to experience imposter syndrome more than white men 2. One reason for this may be that, as Dr. Young observed, girls and women tend to internalize criticism, whereas boys and men tend to place the blame on factors outside themselves.

According to a recent study in the Journal of Educational Society, women in fields that value brilliance, or innate intellectual talent, tend to experience even higher rates of imposter syndrome than women in other fields (Muradoglu et al., 2022) 3. This study found that this wasn’t because the women were less intelligent, but because they perceived themselves as less intelligent. In STEM fields dominated by men, like physics or computer science, it is easy to feel like you don’t belong even though you are just as capable as your peers. These perceptions of yourself can have real and lasting impacts on your life. Self-doubt can prevent you from attempting and achieving goals of which you might otherwise be capable. So what can you do to overcome these feelings and live your dreams?

A woman working in a lab, reflecting that women are capable of being scientists despite what imposter syndrome might make us think.

5 Ways to Shed the Self-Doubt and Overcome Imposter Syndrome

Change Your Perspective

One thing Dr. Young recommends is reframing your thoughts. If you know that self-doubt is a symptom of imposter syndrome and not a reflection of your capabilities, it can be easier to tune out that voice. 

Along with reframing your thoughts regarding your capabilities, consider the role that fear plays in your life. Imposter syndrome can lead you to feel afraid or hesitant to act. What would you do if fear wasn’t a factor? Would you apply for the job or scholarship? Would you reach out to the mentor or professor you’ve been wanting to talk to? Once you realize that fear is the only thing holding you back, you can see the situation more clearly. 

Join an Affinity Group

It is no secret to women that STEM fields are male-dominated. It’s no wonder why we sometimes feel like outsiders in work and academic settings. One way to combat this and feel more sure of yourself is to join an affinity group. These groups are formed around a common interest or goal and are something to which you can formally belong. Organizations like the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Women Who Code, Alpha Sigma Kappa – Women in Technical Studies (ASK WITS), and the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) can unite women in an environment that aims to support and strengthen each other. Check out your anticipated college or university clubs to find groups that support women in STEM. 

Find a Mentor

Mentors are an important part of a college career, especially for women in STEM. A mentor can help you with networking, application writing, career planning, and more. They also provide a valuable perspective from someone who comes to know you and your capabilities well. They can help you recognize your strengths and encourage you to pursue your goals. Although taking this initiative can be daunting, you deserve to feel supported and encouraged as you learn. To gain opportunities you must be willing to make bold requests. Ask that professor if they need a volunteer or research assistant, even if you don’t have experience. Remember that professors are there to help you along your path, and nine out of ten times are happy to take students under their wing and impart their knowledge. 

Another thing to consider is whether someone you see as a mentor knows that you view them in that light. If someone knows that you hope to be mentored by them, they are better able to provide you with the kind of support you are looking for. If they are unsure of your needs, they cannot serve you in the best way possible.

Embrace Failure

Failure is a part of life and can teach us invaluable life lessons. It is a chance to embrace new opportunities you may not have previously recognized. Failure can open your eyes to new ways of moving forward and teach you things about yourself that you could not have learned without it. As a woman in STEM, I was taught to fear failure. If I failed a test or didn’t qualify for something it felt like the end of the world. It was through failure and rejection, however, that I could reassess the path I was on and realize what would actually bring fulfillment to my life. Check out the way that 13 members of the Forbes Coaches Council have used failure to become more successful here.

Celebrate Your Successes

It can be difficult to consciously take moments to acknowledge the things you have accomplished. In STEM fields it can seem like you are going through the motions to get where you need to go because you are always working toward a larger goal. Additionally, being surrounded by other people in the field makes it easy to forget how cool and interesting your field is. Working in STEM requires hard work and dedication and each of your accomplishments, no matter how small, reflects the work that you have put in. Allow yourself and those around you to celebrate your successes. Take a moment to let your success mentally and emotionally resonate with you. 

We Deserve to Be Here

As women in STEM, it can feel like external factors are working against us. From a lack of accessibility to STEM resources to people holding on to outdated opinions about the capabilities of women, we face enough challenges as it is. That is why we can’t let our internal voices be another barrier. It is normal to question yourself and your abilities, but we cannot allow it to prevent us from being successful and accomplishing our goals. We must overcome the voice that undervalues our strengths, exaggerates our shortcomings, and prevents us from receiving the things we deserve. While it is easier said than done, these steps can help you recognize imposter syndrome for the untruthful voice that it is, and overcome it with confidence and drive.

 

Author Bio

Alia Smith on her graduation day, holding her diploma from Colorado State University

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alia Smith is the programming associate for Pretty Brainy. She recently graduated from Colorado State University with a master’s degree in Ecosystem Science and Sustainability. For her thesis, Alia studied the use of citizen/community science to study pollinator decline in National Parks. She is passionate about science communication and connecting people with science.



References

1“Imposter Syndrome | the Gist – the Girls in STEM Toolkit.” Imposter Syndrome. Accessed June 5, 2024. https://www.thegist.edu.au/students/careers-in-stem/imposter-syndrome/.

2Davies, Katie. “An Increasing Number of Female and Non-Binary Stem Students Are Experiencing Imposter Syndrome.” Stem Women, April 18, 2023. https://www.stemwomen.com/increasing-number-stem-students-experiencing-imposter-syndrome.

3Muradoglu, Melis, Zachary Horne, Matthew D. Hammond, Sarah-Jane Leslie, and Andrei Cimpian, “Women—Particularly Underrepresented Minority Women—and Early-Career Academics Feel like Impostors in Fields That Value Brilliance,” Journal of Educational Psychology 114, no. 5 (July 2022): 1086–1100. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000669.

“Girls in STEM: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome.” Your Dream Blog, July 12, 2023. https://yourdream.liveyourdream.org/2023/07/girls-in-stem-overcoming-imposter-syndrome/.

Photo: Mikhail Nilov