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'Surely you're joking, Ms. Sarma!'

Imposter syndrome: The unspoken endemic amongst girls

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When I was small, my image of female scientists was that of women dressed in white lab coats and goggles, swirling Erlenmeyer flasks with great attention and observing magnificent reactions. This oversimplified understanding of science, for better or worse, instilled a certain sense of confidence in me and many of my friends. 

At the age of nine, I was confidently dissolving salt and sugar in water on top of a hot plate and recording how long it took each compound to dissolve in water. My first introduction to the rules of solubility, one could say. Three girls bagged the top three medals in that competition, mine included. We all found science exciting, not intimidating. But somehow, throughout the years of school, many shed that sense of confidence as they navigated through what subjects to study.

For any female student in science, it has almost become common knowledge that males are the ones most often raising their hand in STEM classes. In my chemistry class, before instituting random call to ensure participation, our professor discussed how studies had shown that white males are the ones predominantly raising their hands and that women talk less frequently.

Now, I’m not sure whether this is always the case. I can definitely say that in some of my classes, women have been more vocal in asserting their knowledge in the field, but at the same time, the fact remains that women do shy away from answering for fear of being incorrect. They are aware of their false reflection on the social mirror of being inadequately prepared.

“In CSE 143 and other computer science introductory classes, every time someone always asks a question — it’s almost always a guy,” Ketaki Deuskar, a rising sophomore in the Allen School of Computer Science, said.

By college, many successful women are hit with severe bouts of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a repercussion of the unequal society we live in. At the UW, where many majors in the STEM fields are capacity-constrained, there’s a large amount of unhealthy competition. That competition can lead to false accusations such as women getting into majors to fill the diversity quota.

“Blaming someone or attributing someone’s success to their fundamental being or gender makes no sense,” Deuskar said. “The major system at UW is flawed, but there’s no reason to put people down and resent their success.” 

She also mentioned how no one will outwardly attribute gender as a reason for advantage but that their tone says it all.

I think the major problem is that by the time girls reach higher education, their confidence is questioned. Many will agree that in elementary school, we felt unstoppable about what we could pursue. We were too wide-eyed, confident, and naïve to even feel like an imposter.

It doesn’t help when there’s not much equal gender representation in the classes women take. I remember in my high school IB Math HL 2 class, boys greatly outnumbered the girls. The lack of representation only helps fuel imposter syndrome for girls and it’s a vicious cycle. The imposter syndrome begins to worry them as they progress in the academic ladder. Seventy percent of high achieving women suffer from feeling fraudulent in the fields that they are experts of.

I believe that there needs to be a larger emphasis in creating and maintaining an equal playing field between men and women through all ages. Not every woman who suffers from imposter syndrome will say that sexism is the sole factor that contributed to it. 

To alleviate this endemic situation, there must be a conscious effort to devise a way that’s not cliché. We can’t expect a formulaic approach to work in this situation that stems from social and psychological factors; we must seek an organic solution. So, when we ask ourselves why women in high positions suffer from imposter syndrome, we can’t look for black and white answers. It is an entangled web, and we must acknowledge the subtleties of the issue at hand. 

In order to instill a greater sense of pride and confidence in female STEM students, the learning environment must be free of judgement. The culture of learning must change, and the roots of the problem must be addressed. To tell a girl to raise her hand in her science class is only taking the approach of curing the symptom of inequality. But, to encourage her and remind her that the field is for all and any who desires to be part of it, that I say is addressing the problem in a genuine manner.

Reach writer Priya Sarma at Twitter: @Priyayasarma

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