# 161: Impostor: Not Just a Women’s Problem

Story behind the Passage

Some women are really going to hate me for what I am writing today but so be it. I am sick of listening to so many ‘problems’ that — supposedly — are women’s problems. Yes, there are many things that hold women back and since I am a woman myself, I do know many of them from experience. But I really think the current trend of “gendering” everything, including problems related to the lack of women’s leadership, is not the way to go. If we want peaceful coexistence and equal opportunities, I just do not think that basically turning all problems into specifically gendered problems helps. Yes, I know data exists which does highlight that some problems affect women more than men. I am not denying this. I just want to remind everyone that higher incidence among women should not lead to the erroneous belief that some issues “just” concern women. This also and especially holds true for the Impostor Phenomenon (IP).

I cannot remember when I first came across IP but today I was powerfully reminded of it in an intense and highly valuable conversation with two very wise men from different generations. One of the most powerful sentences one of them said after both had described some personal experiences in their careers was:

“I do not think that this entire impostor issue is just a women’s problem. We all experience it.”

I could not agree more, especially after hearing the stories they had shared. But I do not want to limit my claim today to IP only. This was just another example of how something that is actually intended to create value, like the discourse on gender equality and equal opportunities, as well as research on particular phenomena that affect women to a larger degree, can basically backfire if you overdo it. Another example, by the way, is the debate on gendered language in Germany. I just watched a discussion on this yesterday and could not agree more with one of the participants who basically claimed that we should care more about actually changing the circumstances that are disadvantaging women instead of changing our language habits.

To make this very clear: I do understand that language makes a difference and language has the power to change minds. Absolutely, no cultural or literary studies scholar, or anybody interested in scholarly evidence for social phenomena, would or can even (given the evidence) deny this. For me, however, everything is a matter of priorities. If the priority is to change a situation to the better, I am more of a fan of giving priority to solutions that actually bring about change as quickly and effectively as possible. That does not mean that language might not be part of the solution. But, again, there needs to be some balance. If you now just focus on the language debate, the other aspects, the ones that need and partly can be implemented completely independent of this, tend to stand in the background.

What also moves to the background is the fact that, again, some issues are really not just affecting women but both/all genders. That brings me back to the IP. According to my observation ever since I first learned about IP, this is an issue that many people are struggling with — men and women. What makes me write about it today, however, is that I realized the immense consequences this can have for people’s careers — even for their lives. It is not just that not believing in your own capabilities and achievements prevents you from being successful. In fact, it is hardly ever the case that you are not successful at all. Rather, you do advance but the price is very high — physically and mentally. Academia, unfortunately, is a field in which the phenomenon occurs quite frequently.

My Learnings

“Those dealing with impostor tendencies put a considerable amount of pressure on themselves to maintain the façade and as such are known to exhibit high levels of perfectionism and workaholic behaviors.” The way this is put is interesting because the “pressure” here is linked with the “façade.” If you then read that alongside the fact that “perfectionism” is a high burden for anybody, the “pressure” is even more severe because not only are you expecting more of yourself than can ever be achieved. You also cover this as best as possible. For all people who are tying to conceal something, no matter what, this is eating up all the energy.

“These are difficult times in higher education. Increased competition for students, declining state appropriations (Barnshaw & Dunietz, 2015), ratcheted scrutiny by the federal government and intense pressure to deliver on outcomes within a four-year time frame by accrediting bodies have left many colleges and universities reeling (Howard, 2015; Woodson, 2013).” Well, this article was written in 2016. You could put today’s or any date from the past 30 years or so underneath the text — it would still remain relevant. The pressure to acquire third-party funding and other competitive issues are very much present. But I am not even highlighthing this sentence just to emphasize these particular problems. No, I want to simply point out that higher education is a primary field in which IP finds a fruitful breeding ground — for women and men.

Again, yes, I know that the statistics highlight that women are especially affected. But you know what — maybe men have a different way of dealing with it? Maybe they do not talk about it that much? Maybe they are “forgotten” in the discourse because women are the stereotypical “victims” of IP? Yes, I warned you that I might be pissing off some women. But really — this is what it looks like very often. If we do not stop to “co-opt” certain (psychological) problems, we also miss the chance of entering a fruitful and equal dialogue between both/all genders. Would it not be so cool to have a joint discussion on this with all people who are affected? And, yes, the chances are good that if you offered a talk or workshop on this, more women would show up. But then I rather suggest you find alternative formats that attract people from all backgrounds instead of just making it a women’s thing again.

I am suggesting this because, talking about priorities, the most important thing to fix is not who/which gender is affected most; the problem is the way academia works. And, again, I know some people might hate to hear this: Academia is not “made” (solely) by the system, e.g., politicians and laws, it is made by the people that act in this system. In other words: all of you/all of us, we can change it. The way this works in the first place is not only by opening our mouths (which is the preferred means of many people). The way this works is by changing certain “conventions” by replacing them with new ones. One example of this — among many — is to appreciate each other’s work and to collaborate, instead of displayhing this stupid arrogant self-promotion habitus that simply makes one throw up and which is just there to cover up all the insecurity behind the façade.

„The Imposter Phenomenon (IP) has been well documented in the academy and it has the potential to negatively impact an organization’s ability to retain students, faculty, and staff alike.” This sentence has so much explosive power because it describes one of the biggest problems universities have: brain drain. The smartest people leave. Actually, I have seen it happen all the time. There is one case that I remember particularly well and it saddened me so much that I still have to think about it a lot. There are many cases like this. But this one I am just thinking of was the first one I witnessed. The guy I am thinking of was the brightest, nicest, and most sensitive PhD student I have ever had the privilege of getting to know. And he left. He never finished his PhD. I think, he is happy now with what he does. And I am not saying that finishing a PhD is what you need to do. You should be happy, this is what I wish for people. But at the same time, I see how many dumbheads and arrogant assholes are left in the academy while others are pushed out. That is what saddens me.

Since IP is what it is, nobody else can be blamed for it. Still, I think, brain drain is the most severe challenge to the long-term survival of traditional universities. With “traditional” I mean comprehensive research universities. Their most valuable capital is smart minds. And, as the definition of IP states, they are exactly the ones that are most affected by IP. Consequently, they are the ones who deserve special attention. And by attention, I do not mean giving them “IP” treatment. No, not at all. One recipe of retaining them and, consequently, of at least curtailing IP is to simply do one thing; something that one of my conversation partners raised today:

“Give free space to talents.” (Heinz Maier-Leibnitz, paraphrased)

To me, this is the one and only most crucial leadership guildeline that anyone with personnel responsibility needs to enforce — for women and men.

Reflection Questions

1) Did you ever suffer from IP? What makes you think this?

2) How do you think about problems which tend to be discussed as “female,” even though you see men are affected as well?

3) Which other industries/social sectors might be especially affected by IP? Why do you think so?




Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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Silke Schmidt

Silke Schmidt

Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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