It is well known that people who do not match the majority in some meritocracy-based groups may (must?) at some point experience impostor syndrome. That is not to say that impostor syndrome is exclusive to such people — in fact, it is quite common in high-achieving individuals of any gender and race, but here I will only speak from the point of view of a woman in computer science. In STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine), the currently underrepresented groups include women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and probably others that are so underrepresented that I can’t even think of their label. Many papers have been written and thoughts shared, some quite recently. Because I like procrastinating via writing about things other than what I am supposed to be writing, I decided to walk through some relevant events in my own life and see if there is reason to believe that they may have caused me to experience this particular syndrome on the rare occasions that it rears its head.
One potential persistent contributing factor could be the obvious mismatch between me and the examples of success around me. But that’s a constant thing, so it doesn’t seem to be the biggest contributor.
Next, I blame the critical accumulation of negative feedback. I notice that with time, the threshold moves up (which is good). For example, way back in the early days of this millennium, I had fairly frequent “oh crap! that’s already been done!” moments during my Ph.D. research, which inevitably led to “why do I think I can come up with anything new, I’m nothing like these smart people?”. Almost all grad students get to feel this, some more frequently, some less.
Later on, I felt fairly confident, having defended my Ph.D. thesis successfully (barefoot and pregnant, but that’s another story). This didn’t last long, as about a week later (still pregnant), I was asked for proof of employment while attempting to open a bank account at my employer’s credit union. I thought little of this until I asked for said proof and found out that nobody else had ever had to do that. I can only guess that a pregnant woman claiming to be a postdoctoral researcher had to prove it, while a non-pregnant man probably wouldn’t, but that’s where my mind went.
I could also blame the pregnancy hormones, of course, but those were not involved in the next external event, which occurred a couple of months later, or as it happened, a week or so after I gave birth to our first child. The baby was still in the ICU after some complications, while I was “recovering” by driving back and forth to be with him as much as possible when I was contacted by the HR department urgently about the sick leave (there was no maternity) form I had dutifully submitted. The policy was that I could get up to six weeks off for normal delivery, eight weeks for C-section. I didn’t have a C-section, not that I would count the delivery of the huge-headed monster that was my first child as “normal”. Nevertheless, the doctor must have felt sorry for us both when he saw that my six weeks would end on a Thursday, so I’d have to go back to work on a Friday, so he wrote Monday as my return day, letting me have one more day with the baby, plus the weekend. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was wrong and unacceptable and to get it fixed soonest.
Of course, as an eager new employee, I did as I was asked, and didn’t think much of it. After all, I had already made arrangements to have my grandmother move in with us to help with the baby since there were no daycare openings anywhere near work (the employees-only daycare center had a year-long waiting list, which I found fascinating at the time, given that a year earlier I had no idea I’d be having a baby).
Eventually, the baby came home, and we all got used to the new family arrangement — two working parents, an infant at home with great-grandma, the usual. Things went well for a while, until the baby grew too heavy, in the unthinking way babies do, making it difficult for my grandma (who was 70 at the time) to care for him 12 hours a day (the typical postdoc workday including the commute). At that point, we were able to find a spot in a daycare, which smelled of chlorine and sadness, but at least we knew that our child would not remember this. Unfortunately, we, the parents, don’t have that feature, so the memories of leaving this screaming tiny human being we made sitting alone in a table hole (they kept infants in strange little nests in the middle of big tables) is right up there with the much more pleasant memories of taking naps with him while still on leave or giving him his very first bath.
Fast-forward a year and a half later, and we were now pros at this. We found a new daycare, much closer to work and less sad-looking. Other than the fact that our now-toddler escaped onto a very busy 5-lane street one day while they were playing outside and we didn’t find out until much later (he didn’t get killed by a car after all, so why worry?), things went smoothly for a while. I even got permission to pump breastmilk in the bathroom of the building next to mine after the system administrator walked into my locked office while I was pumping during lunch one day. I couldn’t travel much to conferences, of course, so my papers were presented by others, for which I was grateful. And we had all agreed on alphabetical author order for all joint papers because it seemed quite reasonable and fair — such a silly thing shouldn’t matter for anyone’s career, right?
So now almost two years into my post-university life, I had all the reasons to feel just as successful as everyone else, but I was too busy staying awake, so I didn’t think much of it. I don’t remember feeling like an impostor, I think you need more sleep to be able to feel that way.
A few years and a couple of more kids later, the last requiring an imported nanny because at that point my grandma was not able to take care of a baby, and our vibrant household was doing great. I even got to bring some of the kids to a few smaller meetings where it was okay to give a talk while wearing your baby. Sadly, I have not seen anyone else do that in all my subsequent travels. Along the way, I was promoted to the first real position, and then the normal number of years later, to the first non-terminal scientist appointment. Papers and proposals got written, postdocs hired, groups led, and more and more management tasks consumed my days.
Most of the time, things were quite normal and work proceeded as expected, but every now and then, there would be small incidents, often in meetings, that made me wonder if I’m deluding myself. I don’t like speaking out in meetings (and I’m not shy), but I do like sharing my ideas. Every once in a while, I’d propose something and there’d be no acknowledgment by anyone, making me immediately wonder if I had just said something supremely stupid, but am too ignorant to even know it. Sometimes the only response I’d get to a new idea would be something along the lines of “have you read that paper by so and so?”. The answer to that didn’t really matter, this kind of question stops discussion dead. While infrequent, these happenings were cumulative and did not get erased by all the positive feedback I was also getting. In fact, now I tended to rationalize the positive feedback as something they had to do because I was a woman; and if I were a man, they would have fired me by now.
I am not a passive person — I do not wait for things to happen to me. So when enough of these feelings accumulated, I did the logical thing and looked for a different position that would better suit my not-so-amazing self. As such, I applied to places where I knew I could do at least as well as the average researcher and so had little doubt that I’d succeed and also feel like I’ve succeeded. In the process of doing this, I learned that author order did indeed matter and collaboration was bad.
Happily sacrificing 13 years of experience and the equivalent of tenure, I started my new life in academia as an assistant professor on the shortest possible tenure-track clock, having only to prove that I could teach. I had little doubt about this myself, unlike the rest of the world and especially my new employer. To enable me to demonstrate this without any doubt, my first year consisted of three new class preparations and a seminar (while maintaining my already significant research load). No problem, I could do that while moving and settling a three-generation household of six across the continent. Because my grandmother now couldn’t climb stairs anymore, we had specific accessibility needs. This made our house choices very limited, which was great because it enabled me to buy our house online.
Our house wasn’t quite ready yet when we arrived, which didn’t bother us initially as we enjoyed one of the extended stay hotels we could afford, sharing a room with just the kids and a dog since my sister graciously agreed to host my grandma until we had a place she could actually get into. What we didn’t know was that the begining of the academic year was also the beginning of the football season, which also meant that all hotels, motels, and campsites are reserved, and so we were now homeless in our new town, with the kids starting school, my husband his new job, and me preparing my first class.
Needless to say, I had some serious doubts about the sanity of deciding to move like this, not having complete control of things like basic shelter. As we were drying our tent during the last night at the motel and trying to select the least unappealing of the homeless camps around town, we were saved by a colleague of my spouse, who despite only knowing him for about a week, generously offered his apartment while he went on vacation.
Why am I talking about moving experiences? This whole ordeal made me feel like I imagine migrant workers do. I didn’t feel welcome or wanted. Nobody seemed to care whether we had a place to live and even getting an office (without furniture, of course) took quite a bit of legwork on my part. I am not saying that an employer has any obligation to welcome me in any particular way, but also, as I was arriving and preparing to devote the rest of my adult life to this new place, I also felt like a nuisance and an afterthought. Since nobody else mentioned anything like this to me before or since I, of course, tend to blame these feelings on my own hyper-sensitivity, although I don’t think I’ve been that sensitive about much else.
No matter, my eyes were on the prize, and I sat down and worked as much as needed to make my courses as good as I could possibly make them. The students seemed to agree, based on evaluations, and I got tenure (again) shortly thereafter. I didn’t see my kids much, of course, but that was expected. The only wrinkle in this blur of a first-year was being told by a senior colleague that maybe I shouldn’t go for tenure at the time specified in my contract (despite having plenty of papers, grants, and clearly doing fine teaching). This advice was given “for my own good” and I think that the giver actually believed this. And while I didn’t follow the advice, these kinds of things tend to linger in memory more than the occasional praise. Actually, scratch that — I don’t remember any praise, but there may be something wrong with my memory. Not long after getting tenure, at some gathering, another senior colleague remarked that I should feel very fortunate that I didn’t have to work as hard as regular assistant professors to get tenure. I was speechless. It’s possibly interesting to note that both these colleagues were women.
Fast forward to the present, two of my kids are already adults (but everyone is still at home), and grandma is still around, but now is the one we must care for. We are doing as well as one can in a pandemic, while everyone is deeply concerned for young parents, especially mothers. I am, too, they have had a hell of a year. But it seems that this is as far as imaginations go. I guess I am not as productive as I could be (running a 6-member household that includes a 98-year-old and an autistic teenager is not exactly a low-overhead activity), but I am also not a young mother, so professionally, I just look bad. I am teaching and writing papers and getting plenty of grants and graduating my students, but somehow I am professionally now three years behind my 6-years-younger male colleague who joined at about the same time and followed a similar career trajectory, and a lot more than the most similar single-career male colleague (in age and CV stats). I tell myself that I made the right choices — volunteered more to stay sane and more recently, to help end the pandemic more quickly — instead of applying for promotion; took care of my kids instead of letting them drift in the chaos that online school has been; cared for my grandma instead of handing her off to someone else… Or maybe I am just bad at doing all that and looking good professionally — who knows, maybe all these other women with three generations to worry about are doing just fine, and I am just not good enough to keep up.
I don’t have impostor syndrome anymore, I am an impostor. The definition of an impostor is “a person who pretends to be someone else in order to deceive others.” I have perfected pretending to be a productive scientist while also being a good mother and granddaughter in order to deceive myself and those around me that this is the one true way in which good work can be done. It feels good to admit it. Maybe I’m cured!