Women Academics Are Likely to Feel Like Imposters in Fields Regarded as Needing “Brilliance” to Succeed

A new study led by Melis Muradoglu, a New York University doctoral candidate, finds that the more an academic discipline is perceived to require raw talent or “brilliance” for success, the more both women and early-career academics feel professionally inadequate — like “impostors”.

The researchers analyzed survey responses of nearly 5,000 academics (faculty, postdoctoral fellows, medical residents, and graduate students) from a total of nine public and private U.S. universities and representing more than 80 fields. These included the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and medicine. The survey asked participants if they agree with such statements as “Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.”

Overall, they found that the more a field was perceived to require “brilliance,” or raw talent, for success by the study’s participants, the more women and early-career academics (that is, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows) reported feeling like impostors relative to other groups. Andrei Cimpian, a professor of psychology at New York University and the paper’s senior author, explains that “many high-achieving individuals feel inadequate despite evidence of their competence and success. Our study shows these sentiments are more likely to emerge in certain contexts — namely, those where brilliance is emphasized — so efforts should be focused on how higher education can create environments where all academics feel capable of succeeding.”

Moreover, impostor feelings in fields perceived to value brilliance were especially strong among women from racial and ethnic groups that are traditionally underrepresented in academia. “It is likely that women from these groups have stronger impostor feelings in brilliance-oriented fields because they are targeted by negative gender, racial, and ethnic stereotypes about their intellect,” says lead author Muradoglu.

The full study, “Women — Particularly Underrepresented Minority Women — and Early-Career Academics Feel Like Impostors in Fields That Value Brilliance,” was published on the website of the Journal of Educational Psychology. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/StudySTEM Fields


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