The Importance Of Creating A Sense of Belonging For Girls In STEM

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Imposter Syndrome. I don’t think there is anyone in the world who would want to experience that, going on the name alone. “Imposter”suggests not fitting in, feelings of alienation and loneliness, of not being accepted by others. “Syndrome” is a word we often associate with illness and medicine.

im-post-er syn-drome /imposter/ sındrəʋm (noun):

A collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. 'Imposters' suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. Coined in the 1980s.

If you don’t think the term sounds all-too-desirable, you’d be absolutely right. People who suffer from Imposter Syndrome feel, either constantly or intermittently, like a fraud—and thus, an outsider. They are unable to internalise their achievements (the pride and satisfaction of a job well done), and instead constantly doubt their merit, and nitpick their own efforts and space within a community or workplace. Reportedly, some 70% of the population has felt like a fraud before, and two out of every five people consider themselves frauds at this very moment.

Who feels Imposter Syndrome most acutely? In societies the world over, as we make strides in gender equality, the overwhelming answer has been women. Of these women, the most endemic are those in the STEM fields: Science, Technology, Maths, and Engineering.


Imposter Syndrome and Gender: A Symptom of Inequality

Why is the conversation around Imposter Syndrome still a gender-related phenomenon in 2015? We need only look at this recent assertion by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that gender equality just isn’t good enough in 2015. When asked why he wanted a 50:50 gender split in his cabinet, Trudeau replied “because it’s 2015”. Too right—the year itself ought to be enough to convince us to take strides.

Unfortunately, it is still high-achieving women that feel Imposter Syndrome most acutely. It is most prevalent among females who set the bar very high, and then when they receive praise, the bar just gets lifted up to the next rung without internalising the praise that they received. It becomes forever more impossible to clear that jump. Some women might work two or three times harder, only to feel no sense of achievement by the end.

In STEM, this is intensified, since STEM workplaces— labs, building sites, software development offices— have traditionally been unwelcoming places for women. It has been male domain for so long, that sexist attitudes prevailed to hinder female inclusion, and as women have begun to make their way inside anyway, men still sometimes ostracise female co-workers and devalue their input. Women in STEM have always faced harsher criticisms leveled at them in the workplace, or, have gone ignored by leaders and colleagues. This has created a desire to impress and go beyond in order to gain acceptance and have a valued position in the workplace. To be noticed, even.


“I’d wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and think, I can’t do this; I’m a fraud.” -Kate Winslet, Oscar-winning Actress


Women need to feel like they belong if we want them to continue working in STEM industries, which include some of the most lucrative, creative, and world-changing jobs. Currently, women account for just 14.4% of STEM employees in the UK. In engineering, figures are even worse: only 8% of British engineers are women. We all know how uncomfortable it is when you don’t fit in; that party that you told your friend you’d go to even though you wouldn’t know anyone, but now you’re in the corner on your own, inanely scrolling through Facebook and feeling just a little bit rubbish.

The fact that not many women are in STEM can often be traced to girls who are interested in STEM not feeling a sense of belonging. Many girls within the UK do not continue studying Sciences beyond the GCSE, because A-Level classes (classes taken to prepare you for your college career) are bound to be full of boys, and their female peers think it’s “uncool”. In the industry, even at this base level, women are called names and told, if they express themselves in a traditionally feminine way, that they are too “girly” for STEM. This fundamental exclusion translates into girls being less likely to select science, computer science, engineering, or maths to study in college or university.


A Case Study: When Women Make Women Feel Like Imposters

Emily completed her PhD to become a Doctor of Science, but didn’t end up going into the lab to continue her career as a lab scientist; she opted-out, and instead took to the classroom. This was due to feeling out of place and out of step with her female co-workers, who leveled the same expectations at her that they were trying to live up to themselves.

During lab work, her female co-workers continually judged and criticised that she did not work hard enough (though her fantastic results proved otherwise), until Emily no longer wanted to work in a lab environment. It turned out that these women had completely given up any semblance of work-life balance in order to keep up with the unreasonably high expectations of their male co-workers, who in addition to giving themselves more slack (they did not have to run through the “prove yourself” hoops), also were not expected to go home to cook for the kids or put them to bed. Women, traditionally expected to give up more for their career, have turned to simply taking on more, and to changing themselves to try to avoid Imposter Syndrome. The women in Emily's lab, fighting Imposter Syndrome, had brought on my friend’s acute feelings of the very same thing.


Stemettes: Promoting STEM Inclusion For Girls

Because a lack of place and community is where so many of the ills come from when we discuss women in STEM; from getting them into industry and keeping them there; Stemettes was born to mitigate this for girls, and to attempt to award women in the workplace this most basic of privilege: Belonging. During Summer 2015, Stemettes ran an Outbox Incubator: the first-of-its-kind, to create young female entrepreneurs with STEM startups. One graduate from the summer programme reflected on Outbox:

“Outbox is the place we came to be defined by our own agenda. We chose what we wanted to be know, seen and remembered for because the audience in the house was so open, relaxed, and devoid of prejudice.

In an all-female environment, there was no pre-judgment, and so girls automatically felt that they belonged. It didn't matter if they were black, white, tall, short, liked Pretty Little Liars or hated Fetty Wap (the programme’s leaders didn't know who he was until Outbox, either): they were united by a love of STEM, shared dream of becoming entrepreneurs, and found their own sense of belonging within that. 

While unfortunate, it was acknowledged that to create progress, Outbox could not allow boys to enroll. The importance of creating an all-female space has been proven, in industries and discussions where females have been historically excluded. Males can often diminish the confidence of females, as they have been socialised to be outspoken and to take charge, making it so that females do not have room to learn and express these traits, leading to those feelings of inadequacy that underpin Imposter Syndrome.

When the impact of Outbox Incubator was measured, it was found that 92% of the participants thought it was helpful working in a peer group of all-girls, and 85% found it super helpful. When you create belonging, you create support; these girls were each other’s biggest cheerleaders, despite perhaps only having met the day before.


“I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find out now.’” -Maya Angelou, Nobel Laureate


Try as hard as we might, there’s no doubt that some girls that we work with will still feel that sense of underachievement, fraudulence, and ‘faking it till they make it’that we try so hard to do away with. The sad fact of the matter is that it comes from within us— every one of us, but mostly women. Even employees of the most amazing companies will feel it. I, as someone who even helps run the Outbox Incubator, have felt it, and I love Stemettes. Imposter Syndrome is even more inherent in women in STEM because their circumstances feed this fire.

That is where we, as a society, are failing our women. Workplaces should not be the breeding ground for perpetuating detrimental psychological weaknesses that inhibit us from performing at our best, and our best should not have something to be ashamed of.


5 Things you Need to Try to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

1.  Focus on the value you bring; not just perfection

2.  Own your successes— remember them and recall them later

3.  Stop comparing yourself— you are your own person with your own valuable contribution 

4.  Lean In: Sometimes you will need to stick your head above the parapet to realise ambition, although the risk may feel scary

5.  Dabble in failure (this was a huge one for the girls at our Outbox Incubator). By failing we learn to pick ourselves up quicker and the bruises will be less each time.

There is a fantastic blog about one man’s struggle with Imposter Syndrome. It’s important to remember that, in this third wave of feminism where the “problem with women in STEM” is on the tip of everyone’s tongues, that men suffer in many of the same ways. He overcame it - so can we.


Article by Jacquelyn Guderley

Jacquelyn is Cofounder & Managing Stemette at Stemettes, a social enterprise inspiring the next generation of girls to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths. They run public events, events in schools and at STEM companies, a mentoring scheme, Outbox Incubator and OtotheB, the global online platform for girls interested in STEM and entrepreneurship. @jacsgud 

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This article is part of TheToolbox.org's #WomenInFront series, powered by Humanise. Learn more about the initiative at WomenInFront.net, or join the conversation on social media: TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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