The Imposter in the Room

I was acutely and nervously aware of the irony of my situation at that moment. I was about to crash an exclusive seminar by passing myself off as “staff” using a defunct email address (which in all fairness, did at one time exist) to register for an event to which I was not at all invited. The seminar was actually a workshop about conquering Imposter Syndrome. Yes indeed, I was the literal imposter in the room, sneaking myself in to learn all I could about how to overcome feeling like an imposter.

How did I get here? Let’s back up. Some time ago I had read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, in which she describes feeling like an “imposter” in school and at work- a phenomenon where rather than taking pride in one’s achievements, she brushed them off as luck, and felt fearful that others would discover a “true” lack of talent or accomplishment. I was interested in this, mostly because her experience of putting the name “Imposter Syndrome” to her feelings, as outlined in her book, was mirrored uncannily in my own experience. The scenario she described was a scene from my own life, (if it was at UC Davis instead of Harvard and another honor society altogether) in which her mind is absolutely blown by a speaker at her Honor society’s initiation ceremony. I had to know more. From the book’s references I went and read the original research paper that described this phenomenon for the first time. More digging revealed a test (omg! a test!!) that would rank the severity of your imposter feelings on a 1-100 scale.

I was all about this: any number I could attach to my feelings made them measurable and therefore understandable, definable! I couldn’t ask for better validation. Like a dutiful researcher, I contacted the lead author of the paper asking for permission to reprint/cite her paper and test as source material for a discussion with other lady scientists I was slated to have the next week, thinking it would provide some good talking points.

Some weeks went by, and our discussion of imposter syndrome went well: consistent with the paper we read, all of us high-achieving women (save one) had experienced imposter feelings, and scored highly on the test. Reactions run the gamut from very surprised to a non-nonchalant shrug. My reaction was somewhere in between…I wasn’t surprised but I was still feeling quite shocked and at a loss at what to do.

Then, out of the blue, I receive a missed call at work. This is very unusual, everyone who wants to reach me never bothers and simply calls my cell phone. It was Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, author and discoverer of the Imposter Phenomenon, calling from Georgia. She knew I had requested to use her materials for a discussion with other women in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) and was following up with me, using the phone I list in my work email signature. Would you, she inquired, be willing to write about your experiences for my website and be a resource for other women in STEM? I was pretty shocked she wanted to put something I write on her website.

I couldn’t have been more intimidated, nervous, and starstruck all at the same time. Like the excited spazz that I am, I blurted out a yes- conveniently forgetting that I’m also planning a wedding and doing my PhD. And so, when I heard about an “invitation only” seminar about Imposter Syndrome at a nearby prestigious university, I had a fit of inspiration and decided to do everything I could to attend.

So here I was, feeling very off balance and doing everything I could to act like I belonged. In my mind’s eye, I could just slip in the back of the seminar and no one would notice me. However, as soon as I ascended the stairs I was greeted with a huge well-dressed crowd, mingling and enjoying a large display of catered treats: five kinds of mini-quiches, coffee, tea, juice, fruit plates, and every kind of cookie, cake and brownie imaginable. Ushers in matching suits (the school colors of course) with name tags waved guests to registration tables…where computers waited to take your name and institutional email.  I panicked, it didn’t say anything about registration on the event flier I had found! Also, somehow the title of the “seminar” had morphed into “workshop,” which to me implied a much more interactive session, meaning the chances I would be found out had drastically increased. But then, amidst the panic I felt a wave of calm descending, in which I calmly marched up to the computer and entered my information. If it rejected me, so be it! Miraculously, however…”Registration Accepted” appeared on the screen and I sort of stood there a little confused for a minute. The Usher kindly gestured me toward the food line and like a zombie I just trudged over and started grabbing whatever was in sight. I got in!

The “workshop” turned out to mean questions posed by the speaker and lots of raising of hands and audience participation. At one time there was even the formation of small groups for intimate activities, and I thought for sure my group-mates would discover the gaps in my personal experiences and realize I didn’t belong there. I played it all off, and everyone nodded in support of me, and asked to borrow my pens, and didn’t even seem the least bit suspicious. Once, an usher in the corner gave me a squinty-eyed serious look, and I thought for sure he would walk over and escort me out. As time went on, I was more comfortable, and I left still feeling nervous but also exhilarated and enlightened.

It was so worth it. I’m still waiting for the email “finding me out” and stating the consequences but so far nothing has arrived. And although it’s taken me several months to even begin composing something worthwhile about Imposter Syndrome, having an idea that I am not alone and not the only one at a loss at what to do sometimes, can make all the difference when deciding where to start. So although I literally had to turn into an imposter to learn how to cope with feeling like one, it somehow became an inspirational experience that ended with a sense of belonging.

I’m still composing something for Dr. Clance’s website, which will *hopefully* follow this post sometime soon.


International Women’s Day: taking a closer look at women in science

Just ahead of International Women’s Day, the journal Nature decided to take a look at the state of women in science and gender bias in research, dedicating many articles and op-ed’s to all sorts of topics. And while they tried to sound enlightened and modern in their approach to the issue, as a woman in science myself I was slightly confused and a little insulted after reading their pages.

They spat out the statistics and talked more than once about how the deck is stacked against women in any and all scientific fields, drilling home that all of us are unconsciously biased toward the maintenance of gender roles, trying to appear sympathetic without assigning blame. Instead they implied quite a bit about how those few women in science make it, and why: largely ignoring what I believe to be the main issue: mentoring of women.

They ran a story titled “From the frontline: 30 something Science” where they chronicled the paths to success of several women scientists in various fields. All of these success stories featured women who seemed to have it all, the prestigious position, the lovely family, the respect of their peers, if only they were willing to work hard enough and make sacrifices:

Being five months pregnant comes with a series of concessions: no booze, no sushi, no double-shot espressos…[breakdancing] is one of the few limitations that Tye, 31, has been willing to accept. Striving to make her mark in optogenetics, one of the hottest fields in neuroscience, Tye thought nothing of working past midnight, getting by on four or five hours sleep a night and maintaining a constant, transcontinental travel schedule…With her mother as a role model, Tye says that she was in her teens before it occurred to her that her gender could hold back her career.

Great, so if only all of us women only worked harder, yes we might have to make sacrifices, but as long we do not accept sacrificing anything for our career and do whatever it takes, we’ll make it. The article goes on to describe how Tye “tearfully” “begged” another successful woman for a place in her lab, threatening to drop out of graduate school if she wasn’t taken in. Another strange bit of writing…is this really the path to success?

But herein lies the real problem. This article glosses over the small detail that Tye had several female mentors not only in life, but during very important times in her career. She became very successful once she was able to convince another woman to help her, and that is not a coincidence. That isn’t to say that she wouldn’t have been successful in a man’s lab, she probably would have, as long as she received good mentoring from that person. All of us, men included, don’t become successful without the help of others, no matter how absurdly talented we may be. Statistically, men receive more mentorship than women, especially in the sciences. That includes men helping women, but more striking is how many less women are inclined to mentor other women. Nature itself even sounded mildly surprised when mentioning that there is no correlation between the number of women who sit on grant review committees and the number of women researchers who receive grants from those same committees. And while I would argue that this is a good thing, it hints at a larger theme that it is expected for women in science to help other women in science and quite honestly, they don’t always.

Unfortunately, women helping women gets much less attention then women spurning other women, which hurts cultural attitudes and expectations about women’s relationships to their peers. Stepping out of science for a second into popular culture, the media broadcasts the latest female feuds with glee: whether manufactured or real. The latest example between Taylor Swift and Tina Fey/Amy Poehler, isn’t just fueling the female feud stereotype, but actually damaging the case for “women helping women.” Taylor Swift angrily insinuated that by embarrassing her at the Golden Globes, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would go to “a special hell for women who don’t help other women.”  This quote in Vanity Fair magazine was simple retaliation, using the very methods she claims to abhor. Her hypocrisy is sadly typical, and actually hurts the “women should help other women” debate.

Many women in positions of power are in a delicate position: often watched very closely for signs of favoritism. They may even have a bit of a chip on their shoulder;  unwilling to help other women because of the sub-par/non-existent mentoring they received themselves. The reverse is often true of younger women. Many today feel entitled to special treatment by older women without earning anything or working particularly hard. None of these scenarios should be the case. I have had and continue to have been fortunately to have several mentors both women and scientists, sometimes both. But it’s not easy to find them.

I won’t even talk much about the incredibly high and unrealistic expectations the US expects of their workforce: long hours, low pay, a much reduced quality of life in exchange for a wonderful career. When some people, rightly so, judge that to be a bad opportunity cost, other people are shocked: s/he just didn’t work hard enough! Maybe working hard is exactly what we need to do; maybe overworking is not.

Some of the most outrageous examples of bias in science, courtesy of Nature:

One study showed that mothers are 79% less likely to be hired and are offered US$11,000 less salary than women with no children3. By contrast, the same study shows that parenthood confers an advantage to men in the workplace.

A particular professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. On the first day of class, “he looked around and said ‘I see women in the classroom. I don’t believe women have any business in engineering, and I’m going to personally see to it that you all fail’.”

In biology, for example, women comprised 36% of assistant professors and only 27% of tenure candidates in a 2010 study by the US National Research Council3.

Professors said they would offer the student named Jennifer US$3,730 less per year than the one named John, even though the CVs were identical. The scientists also reported a greater willingness to mentor John than Jennifer.

  • Nature 495, 22–24 (07 March 2013)
  • Nature 495, 28–31 (07 March 2013)

Happy 40th Anniversary Roe v. Wade!


As part of Blog for Choice Day sponsored by NARAL Pro-choice America and the anniversary of Roe v Wade, I’ve decided to be a part of their discussion this year:

“…we’re asking you to share your story about why you’re pro-choice.”

At first I was reluctant to use the words “pro-choice” to describe my views on reproductive rights. I was hesitant to be categorized within an extremely polarized and political issue that is so frequently associated with violent images and protestors. I myself am preferentially non-political in nature and usually don’t endorse a platform so passionately. As a young woman, however, all I knew was that my body was my own- and no one, least of all the state or the government, should have any compulsory power over my health.

I viewed it as a logical progression, if the state couldn’t force me to get an annual flu shot or my teeth cleaned, why should they decide what happens with my pregnancy? It’s fair to say that I didn’t understand the nuances of the debate until several years ago. Weren’t all those people opposing a women’s right to choose just religious fanatics?

Things changed when I discovered a surprising piece of news. Someone very close to me confided that she had gotten an abortion, and for many years I had no idea. Suddenly I felt, almost outside myself, a sense of horror bubbling up. It was an involuntary reaction that I was emotionally detached enough from to analyze a bit. If I was so pro-choice why did I have this vague sense of moral outrage? I suppose I had previously looked at abortions as a last resort, mostly unnecessary if only people were a little bit responsible. I received, and therefore supported, sex education and family planning. I still do. But until that moment I didn’t understand the more complicated feelings: the helplessness, the trapped and conflicted feelings, the fear of being judged.

People like to be morally unimpeachable, and too many people rush to support what they feel is right, without stopping to think about the other lives involved, and how what is right can differ for everyone.


Recently I also read the book (and watched the recent PBS documentary) Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It was an eye opening and surprisingly riveting read highlighting the dangers of limiting women’s rights, whether it is their right to an abortion, a marriage, a family, or running a business. The author makes the points that how a society treats women is proportional to how well they function, that women “hold up half the sky.” Countries that restrict women’s rights sacrifice substantial  gains in GDP and countless opportunities to climb out of poverty. Microfinance operations in the third world have consistently demonstrated how much more effective supporting women is then supporting men.

I’m pro-choice because I support women. I support organizations that support women. I support a women’s right to choose, whatever choice that may be. I think it’s dangerous to restrict women’s rights, and Roe v Wade went a long way to make sure women have options. Sure, not everyone agrees with how other people use their freedoms, which is why I feel grateful to live in a country that values freedom, and strives to protect it. I remain optimistic, and I believe that as long as those women are empowered, making their own decisions, doing what’s right for their health and/or their family’s health, then our communities, our nation, and our lives will be the better for it.

Mac or PC?

But I want nerdy AND pretty!

But I want nerdy AND pretty!

I once had an IT guy say to me, “If you’re the kind of person who would buy a Mac and the first thing you would do is install Firefox, then you should really be using a PC.”

That was back when I had just got an iBook, which is now of course simply ancient Mac technology. It was my first ever college computer and sure enough, one of the first things I had in fact done was installed Firefox. I was already feeling dubious and insecure and this man’s words echoed in my head…maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be a “Mac user.” Macs were (can you believe it?) in the minority then and I had continual compatibility issues throughout my college career (one of my most repeated phrases was,”well I can’t do that, I have a Mac…). This is now a distant memory since Apple has taken over the world, and software and hardware support both platforms usually, but at the time I had trouble finding a printer or even a mouse from a third party distributor that would be compatible. After a few years I switched back to a PC because I didn’t want to ever be unable to open a file from my Professor again. Knowing me and my horrible timing, I switched from Mac to PC just as everyone became Apple fanboys and started using them like crazy. Ironically now I have the opposite problem, having to endlessly convert files I get from my colleagues using Macs back to PC format. Again with my horrible timing, I upgraded to Vista…right before the debut of Windows 7. Needless to say it’s been a bumpy road for me in the computer purchasing department, so now I’m soliciting advice. Unfortunately now that I’ve used both I think the decision is even harder, I didn’t all in love with Mac so it isn’t as simple for me as “once a Mac, never go back.”

Five years post Mac to PC transition I’m looking for a new computer again and trying hard to resist the Apple craze…with little success. I have already put my foot in the door again since using the iPhone4, and it’s hard to resist their sleek, nearly mindless interface. If Macs (and everything Apple, really) were not so ridiculously expensive I would have bought one already.

The problem is that I as a consumer sit squarely between the two kinds of people each brand has targeted for marketing.  I’m literate and knowledgeable enough about computers to get frustrated by Mac’s oversimplification and lack of customization, but I’m still shallow enough to appreciate the beauty, efficiency, and unification built in to Apple products. I do enough data analysis and image quantification to need lots of computing power and specialized software, which in the past was not always available on a Mac (but now that’s changing). I’m a semi-hipster student with dark rimmed glasses in true Mac fashion, but I spend less of my time in coffee shops than in laboratories.

In science it seems like everyone is a Mac user, and these days I’m not convinced that a Mac can’t do all the same things as a PC. Then again, perhaps the age of Mac is declining since the demise of its genius founder, and PC’s are on the rise as the best and brightest. After all, I hate what they did to iTunes lately…

I toyed around with the idea of getting an iPad and a cheap work PC. I could have beauty and portability with me at all times, saving the chunky number cruncher laptop in the lab with all the data. This is more or less the setup I have now, except it’s a tiny iPhone instead of an big iPad, and the PC only lives in the lab because its hard-drive gets all clicky sounding and threatens to die when I move it around too much.  Unfortunately this solution is pricey, and being as I have a very small disposable income, I balk at shelling out the money for an Apple anything, even if an iPad would be cheaper than a MacBook Pro.

On the PC side of things I figure I have two options, not all of them feasible. I hesitate to buy a computer with a brand new Windows 8 operating system, especially if it’s touted as “going to” revolutionize Windows operating systems. My gut tells me I should wait until more people try it out and I’m sure there isn’t an upgrade around the corner ready to eclipse it a la Vista’s cousin 7. So first option would be to simply buy a new laptop with the old Windows 7 system, and be just as outdated as I am right now, albeit faster. Second option, give Windows 8 a go.

Last and final option: beg my next lab to buy the computer for me, decision made! Unfortunately this is a pipe dream, with lab grants all the more scarce it’s not so much of a given that new graduate students get new computers, like some other lucky people I know.

Maybe I’m just too scared to take the Mac leap again…what oh what should I do?

Snow White and the Feminist

This spring/summer  has seen two back to back movies assail theaters as well as a show premiere on TV all centering around the girl who ate an apple. No, not Eve. I’m talking about Snow White, whose recent movie Snow White and the Huntsman I went to see last night. Hint: May contain Spoilers. I’ve been following with vague interest the conversations about Snow White’s possible anti-feminist message, considering the original Snow White kept house for seven mini men and then fell into a coma until her rescue by a man’s kiss I’d say sure, she wasn’t all that empowered. In the words of Sara Bareilles in her song Fairytale, “…Snow White has been drinking again, cause, what else could you do with seven itty bitty men…?” That’s pretty much how I feel about Snow White. If she wasn’t dumb as a doornail she would probably be drinking. However, I hadn’t formed much of an opinion since I’d seen neither of the recent Snow White movies (until yesterday) nor the singular TV show, Once Upon A Time (which I hear is pretty good too).

The recent re-imagining as Snow White, battle-ready warrior, is trying a little too hard to wiggle around the 1950’s timid little girl image but this doesn’t seem to deter those up in arms over the perceived message of anti-feminism. Apparently it’s the plot of two women feuding, the idea of pitting two women against each other and promoting the stereotypes of ugly evil hag against innocent youth is not a good message for women.

I disagree. Of course, stereotypes can be degrading and distasteful, but if it was a man and a woman fighting instead people would still be upset. Let’s look instead at how the concept of beauty is dealt with and portrayed in the Snow White saga. This is what I find most offensive, and yes, anti-feminist. But no one really talks about that part. I oppose the idea that beauty is a standard, a specific end to which without it one of these women will be nothing. She has her pretty face or she holds no power, no influence over her peers, no means to win back or keep a kingdom. Snow White is “blessed” by beauty and seems to keep it effortlessly, a completely unrealistic and unreachable ideal that is not a healthy message, but is completely consistent with today’s expectations in the media. The evil queen must try desperately to be beautiful only by taking what others have naturally, and of course she does not succeed. Does this mean that if you aren’t already beautiful then sorry, girls, you’re just going to die trying  and accomplish nothing?

Forget the vacuous and superficial nature of the characters or the way they perceive beauty, the real problem is the impossible standards of beauty being pedaled as wares. We have somehow narrowed the formerly broad definition of beautiful and forgotten that nature creates an array of silhouettes in varying combinations, and that such diversity in itself is beauty personified. If you aren’t so beautiful that you can innocently stare down a Troll ten times your size as Snow White does then, well you’ll fail at life obviously. As an aside, notice how the movie’s creators chose to re-interpret the classic fairytale scenario of answering a riddle to cross the stone bridge to safety, which is usually guarded by a witty little demon asking about sparrows or some such thing (cue the Monty Python imagery). You’re supposed to stare at the pile of bones below and lose your head, usually literally, when you fail to outsmart the troll and lose the privilege to cross the bridge. Well Snow White is so pretty she can get around answering questions just by looking at you, but to be fair I guess conveniently the troll forgot to ask questions before attempting to kill them.

People always refer to the Middle Ages and the reverence of well-fed women as the prime example of our society’s evolving cultural expectations. And it is true that these kinds of fads change over time, even if we can’t envision them changing any time soon. The point is to weather them. It’s easy to just stick a finger at the media and say they are the sole problem for propagating the ideas, and hand them all the blame for how bad we feel about ourselves or how impossible it is for us to look like celebrities. Somehow we have to find our own beauty and remind ourselves that we are important and meaningful just as we are, all the while surrounding ourselves with people who love us and cherish us. Those are the people that matter anyhow. I have a feeling if the evil queen could do that (her greed notwithstanding) things would have been a lot sunnier in her little kingdom.