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Women in Science: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome | The Child Health Research Institute

By Ann Anderson Berry, MD, PhD, Children’s Nebraska vice president of research and executive director of the Child Health Research Institute

In March, we celebrate Women’s History Month, an important occasion to honor the contributions made by females in all sectors of society. As a physician and researcher, I stand in awe of the legacy women have built—and continue to build—in medical science.

  • Notably, Metrodora, a Greek female physician, authored the book “On the Diseases and Cures of Women” in the late fifth century and pioneered treatment and surgical techniques.
  • The research of Marie Curie, PhD, led to the creation of the X-ray machine and earned her two Nobel prizes.
  • Important to my work as a neonatologist, Virginia Apgar, MD, invented the Apgar score, a test to determine if babies require urgent medical attention.
  • Francios Barre-Sinoussi, PhD, along with Luc Montaigner, PhD, discovered that human immunodeficiency viruses are the cause of AIDS.

These women made vital, game-changing contributions to the world of science despite encountering discouragement and exclusion throughout their careers. Today, I have the honor of witnessing and mentoring groundbreaking female researchers who continue this legacy through my leadership roles with the Child Health Research Institute (CHRI), Children’s Nebraska and the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Department of Pediatrics.

Notably, we have extraordinary women making important breakthroughs in the areas of encephalitis, pediatric cancer, autism, heart disease, pediatric kidney development and cystic fibrosis through CHRI—a partnership between Children’s and UNMC.

My passion for mentoring runs deep and, just this month, I had the privilege of receiving the Outstanding Faculty Mentor of Graduate Student award from UNMC. I don’t take this opportunity lightly; it’s my responsibility to empower our researchers with the support they need to be successful. This includes taking great strides to provide the opposite environment that women in science had to contend with in the past.

This week, I was paid a compliment by a senior faculty member who noted she always loves collaborating with my talented, innovative and hard-working students. She didn’t comment on their being first-generation college students, minority women in STEM or students embarking on second careers. What this professor saw, and what I see, are brilliant professionals who have valuable ideas and talents. My goal is to help young professionals see that in themselves, drop labels that may be holding them back and embrace their science to their full potential.

Despite these efforts, it is not uncommon to witness the phenomenon of imposter syndrome, particularly among the high-achieving women we support. I’m here to share strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome and self-doubt.

Understanding Imposter Syndrome

According to Harvard Business School, imposter syndrome is defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Simply put, imposter syndrome is the sense that you are “faking it” and not worthy of your achievements.

It is disproportionately felt by high achievers and can negatively affect personal health, career trajectory, interpersonal relationships with colleagues and long-term career goals, bringing with it a greater risk of occupational burnout and professional unfulfillment.

This feeling is, of course, not limited to only women in medicine. It’s estimated that more than 80% of people across genders, occupations and backgrounds have experienced the feeling of imposter syndrome. Yet, studies show that women feel self-doubt about their professional standing more frequently than men. Moreover, the symptoms of imposter syndrome are commonly worse for women of color and first-generation achievers.

In a professional setting, imposter syndrome can manifest in the form of reluctance to share your opinions, fear to take on more responsibility or a new role, deference to others who then move ahead and poor work performance and satisfaction. It may cause us to overwork, undervalue our own contributions and feel uncomfortable receiving recognition. These issues commonly lead to problems outside of work as we bring our anxieties, frustrations and workload with us into our homes and personal lives.

One key to counteracting your imposter syndrome is understanding how it manifests in you.

Staying True to Yourself

I grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, have firsthand experience sleeping in a log cabin and am the first doctor in my family. I’m proud of my roots and where I come from. Staying true to who I am has helped me get to where I am today. My background may differ from other leaders in our field, but I understand that my education has brought me along the same path as those who come from families with rich medical legacies.

As my career developed, I have intentionally surrounded myself with mentors and sponsors who demonstrate that kindness and ambition can coexist. They exemplified how the former could empower the latter. Surrounding myself with nice people became the primary rule for my career. I have learned that I can teach a student any set of skills necessary in my research lab, but work will grind to a halt unless everyone is a team player. I’m upfront about my background and “origin story” so that others can see that there are many paths to achievement.

These practices keep me tethered to a sense of gratitude for the people and opportunities I’ve had throughout my life.

Spending time worrying about your qualifications instead of building your skills is a wasted effort. Instead of thinking, “Am I faking my life?” it’s important to focus on the fact that you were chosen based on your accomplishments. You have earned your place, and you are well qualified to perform at the highest level.

Using Imposter Syndrome Effectively

I also think it’s important to realize that, at times, mild feelings of imposter syndrome can be the push you need to take yourself to the next level. “Moderation is best in all things,” as the Greek poet Hesiod said. Acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses, and leveraging them, is critical to success.

The balancing act is to use your imposter syndrome when you need to rather than be victimized by it. Developing a deeper understanding of how it functions within in us can help us use it effectively. Some useful questions to ask are:

  • Who are you around when your imposter syndrome is the worst?
  • What are you doing?
  • Where does it happen?
  • Why do you think this occurs?

Imposter syndrome can be situational and triggered by who is in the room. A know-it-all or a bully may put us on the defensive. Our past experiences can influence imposter syndrome. Being told you are bad at something can undermine your confidence in that area for decades. Interestingly, your intrinsic biases can augment your own imposter syndrome. One example: putting a high value on an Ivy League education when you went to a state school can instill feelings of inferiority.

Do high exposure events cause imposter syndrome in you? Starting a new job, getting a promotion, receiving recognition and public speaking are all common circumstances when self-doubt can creep in.

Finding What Works for You

Equally important to managing your imposter syndrome is understanding what works to overcome it, and what clicks for one person might not click for someone else. It’s also important to be aware that what causes us to feel insecure can be deeply hardwired within you. Don’t get discouraged if it takes time for your defense methods to work. The following are recommended methods to help nurture your self-confidence:

  • Practice self-forgiveness and self-acceptance.
  • Realize that you may not be able to objectively assess your abilities and qualifications.
  • Understand that we are often much more judgmental of our own limitations than we are of others.
  • Come to see that your strengths and talents are just as valuable as the strengths and talents of others.
  • Let go of unrealistic expectations you place on yourself.
  • Give yourself permission to make and learn from your mistakes.
  • Monitor your inner monologue and understand that our negative self-talk is powered by our insecurities.
  • Use language that reinforces your strengths and abilities.
  • Embrace that it is natural to feel uncomfortable when you are acquiring a new skill or excelling in a new area.
  • Recognize that discomfort is a sign that you are growing and challenging yourself.
  • Ask a neutral party to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses and believe the positive feedback as much as the negative.

Talking to other people can often help us gain perspective and right-size our understanding of our weaknesses. Having a support system to remind us of our strengths and accomplishments can be highly effective in overcoming imposter syndrome. If you experience the physical, emotional and psychological symptoms associated with imposter syndrome (depression, anxiety, lethargy, etc.), talk to someone. A mental health professional is often best prepared to provide the support you need if your mental health is being affected. Remember, it’s okay to ask for help and support in both our professional and personal lives.

I hope these tips help encourage you to step into confidence and self-acceptance, see your abilities and potential clearly and overcome self-doubt if it creeps in. I have seen firsthand how they have made a difference in the lives of those I have the privilege of mentoring. I wish you well on our journey forward. If you find yourself in a situation where you fear you may be out of your depth, take a deep breath, try to remember some of these lessons and repeat to yourself:

I belong, I am enough and I can do it.

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