Tuesday, March 9, 2010


A recent study presented at the last AAS meeting shows that 60% of female astronomers suffer from impostor syndrome, the (unjustified) "fear of being exposed by colleagues for a lack of knowledge or ability". In comparison, 47% of male astronomers say they suffer from this. Since these fears could be a factor leading people away from astronomy, it may be one of the many things explaining why so few women make it all the way.

I would be curious to see the results of such a study for mother-astronomers. If it's so easy to doubt oneself in general (even half of our male colleagues do it, apparently!), it's probably worse when you add on top of it all the worries and concerns of juggling babies and research.

Coming back to work after maternity leave is both thrilling and deadly stressful. After being away from work, there's the joy of getting back into it, but also the (self-imposed in my case) pressure of performing extra well to make up for the lost time. I find myself in meetings sometimes, wanting to contribute to the discussion, show that I'm back in business, but blanking out because baby didn't sleep well and I'm tired, or because I worry about x or y baby-related thing.

When this happens I get home afterward, and while I play with the kids, I find myself worrying about work, how I need to do more. Impostor syndrome at work, impostor syndrome at home.

These are bad days, but fortunately it's not always like this. A comment on a previous post expresses very well one of my believes about the work/family duality: if I'm happy at work, it benefits everyone, including my kids. Most of the time I'm able to convince myself that my colleagues are understanding, that I don't need to prove myself all the time, that as long as I do my best I can't ask more of myself; I throw the impostor syndrome out of the window. But it takes a constant effort to not let it creep back, doubting is so easy.

I liked reading the results of this study. Because I recognized myself, and because I now know that it's such a widespread phenomenon. Why didn't I know before? Because we're expected to be tough, and we put on a facade most of the time. But really, that's not helping anyone, actually it's probably doing more harm than good. We need to break this vicious circle! So let's make a first baby step here - if you're reading this and it sounds familiar at all, let us know, because everybody likes to know that they're not alone with their problems and worries. At least I know I do!

1 comment:

Alyssa said...

I absolutely feel this way! In fact, I am so interested in the topic that I've put together a lecture about it and have given it a couple times around the university.

I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest that it should be talked about. I believe that's a big way to help people that have the impostor syndrome - we all feel much better when we find out that most everyone else feels the same way.

In fact, I think those stats are incredibly low - my guess is that the rest of the people surveyed just didn't want to admit it (because you can't be weak in academia).

Great post.