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In the third post in our series, Scholars Strike Back, Alyssa Westring, Assistant Professor of Management at DePaul University examines a major barrier to women’s engagement in the public sphere: the imposter phenomenon. If you are interested in participating in this series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.

In his much-discussed NY Times Op-Ed, "Professors, We Need You," Nicholas Kristof pushes for academics to bring their voice into public discourse, instead of “hiding” their knowledge in obscure journals and uninterpretable jargon.  His article has generated a wide variety of reactions from academics – many of whom are already actively engaged in public scholarship.  One important conversation that has emerged in reaction to this article is a discussion of the gendered nature of public engagement.  The data quite clearly demonstrate a large gap between the representation of men and women in popular media outlets.  This gap may be explained, at least in part, by the fact that women are much less likely to submit their writing for publication in these outlets.  In considering the reasons for this disparity, Gwendolyn Beetham convincingly points out several significant barriers that may explain women’s reluctance to do so.

As an Assistant Professor of Management and a scholar of work-life balance and women’s careers, many of the obstacles that Beetham mentions ring true to me.  As a recent fellow of The OpEd Project, a non-profit dedicated to empowering “under-represented experts to take thought leadership positions,” I was asked to delve deeply into the personal barriers that have kept me from participating in the popular debates about the very topics that I study on a daily basis.  It became clear to me that one of the underlying causes of my reluctance was a fear of somehow publicly revealing a lack of intelligence or expertise (despite ample evidence to the contrary).  In other words, I didn’t want to expose myself as a fraud.  My fears reached a head as I prepared to be interviewed on live radio about my research for an hour. In a laughably academic fashion, I spent the hours prior to my radio interview scouring research articles to define and understand my concerns.

I began my search with the phrase “the imposter phenomenon,” a term I learned about in graduate school that still rang true.  Visiting this research again, I found that Clance and Imes coined the phrase in 1978 to describe successful women who felt like “phonies” despite evidence of their intelligence and accomplishments.  In the thirty years since their work, a broader body of research has emerged exploring how women attribute the causes of their success and their reactions to feedback in typically male dominated fields.  There is ample evidence that from a young age, girls are taught that their success in these fields is due external factors such as hard work or luck and failures are due to ability; whereas the opposite attributions are taught to boys.  These patterns of thinking often persist throughout adulthood – where even those who women who have persisted in typically male-dominated fields feel more uncertain about their ability and are more anxious about being revealed as “an imposter.”  These beliefs also correspond to a greater sensitivity to the possibility of rejection and internalization of negative feedback.

I spent some time thinking about why academic scholarship doesn’t trigger the fears that I might be an imposter to the same extent that popular scholarship does.  To be sure, imposterism is an important consideration in academic scholarship, particularly in fields still largely dominated by men. Looking more specifically at public scholarship, however, I found that there are a few key distinctions between these outlets that are particularly relevant for anyone with a secret fear that they might actually been an “imposter.”

First, as noted above, journalism is still a field where women represent a notable minority. Unlike academic disciplines where women have made significant strides in terms of their representation (even in typically male-dominated STEM fields), these changes are not echoed in journalism. So, there’s the possibility that the under-representation of women in popular media triggers feelings of imposterism in a way that more gender-balanced academic engagement doesn’t.

Additionally, in writing for a wider audience, there is an expectation of bold and interesting assertions with limited space to marshal the supporting evidence. In popular outlets, there is limited room to hedge one’s assertions or qualify the limited contexts in which they may apply.  For a supposed imposter, this scenario is likely to be disconcerting.   It stands in sharp contrast to academic writing in which one can reference the works of other experts, provide mountains of supporting evidence, and qualify their findings to a narrow range of contexts.  Because women are socialized to see their failures as indicators of a lack of ability, the nature of the public discourse itself may serve to keep out those who are afraid of being called out as frauds.

There are also key differences in the nature and quantity of exposure and criticism associated with academic versus public scholarship.  Once academic research is published, it has already been vetted for quality and, for the most part, there is generally little reaction to the work (either positive or negative – for a rare exception, see here).  In fact, half of academic articles may be read by fewer than three people. For someone who fears that they are an intellectual imposter, this anonymity may feel like a safe venue for sharing ideas.  In popular scholarship, there is the potential for a much wider audience.  While only a handful of people may have read my academic work, my first Huffington Post blog post received over 1,400 “likes” in a few days.  While this may seem like relatively little traffic compared to a mainstream blogger, this number was staggering to me.

While (fortunately) that blog post wasn’t the target of any “trolling,” there is a vulnerability to criticism that comes with public scholarship.  In academia, research is largely critiqued within the context of a double-blind peer review.  In other words, the reviewers don’t know the identity of the author.  This provides the scholar with a perceived layer of protection against personal criticism. In popular writing, the author is not anonymous but the critics often are.   The anonymity on the part of the critic may result in more extreme and negative feedback.  Compounding this issue is the fact that this criticism is often directed at both the content of the writing and personal aspects of the author. In particular, women who engage in public scholarship are often subjected to extreme gender-based harassment and threats. Research has shown that when women feel the threat of gender-based criticism, they are more likely to engage in self-silencing behaviors.

So, what can we do about the dearth of women in public scholarship?  Maria Klawe provides useful advice that can be readily translated from her fields (Mathematics and Computer Science) to the domain of public scholarship.  An emerging stream of research focuses on the effectiveness of “stereotype inoculation.” This research finds that, much like how a vaccine works, exposure to women experts in a typically male-dominated field serves to “inoculate” women against the self-doubt and isolation that often accompanies being the member of a minority.  Given the effectiveness of this model in the STEM fields, there is reason to believe that women academics could be “inoculated” against the fears of public scholarship through exposure to and engagement with women journalists. Although research on this topic is still needed - I have anecdotal evidence that it works. In my previously mentioned fellowship with The OpEd Project, I received the inoculation treatment first-hand - I had the opportunity to be mentored by Amy Gutman (@amygutman) and Deborah Siegel (@deborahgirlwpen) who steered me through the process of public engagement. As I began my dreaded radio interview, I was able to silence my concerns of being revealed as an imposter, and was instead able to almost hear my mentors whisper in my ear, “If not you, then who?”

Alyssa Westring is an assistant professor of management at DePaul University and received her PhD in Organizational Psychology. She is a scholar of work-life and women’s careers topics and part of the Research Partnership for Women’s Careers in Science. She is a 2013 fellow of the OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter at @alyssawestring.


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