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Beyond Imposter Syndrome

Opinion | April 22, 2019

When I was seven years old, my dad drove me to my elementary school at the bright hour of 7 a.m., almost two hours before school began. He parked his car and walked me down a dimly light hallway to the opposite end of the school building, where I entered a room of elementary-aged White boys with their middle-aged White dads. He sat me down in front of a black-and-white checkered board, littered with unfamiliar pieces, and told me to play. That first chess club meeting, I lost every game.

It was my first major experience with failure—I sobbed, trying to wrap my head around what had just happened. When I got home that night, my dad let me cry until I ran out of tears, and then he developed a game plan for me to implement over February break: I was to work tirelessly to master chess so I could go back to chess club and beat everyone.

That was the first game plan my dad made for me—and it was far from the last. Chess club was my first go at defending myself against privileged White men who assumed I was not capable of picking up the way of the game. That fight is one I still fight today, with a go-to mantra written into my brain: You have to work twice as hard to get half of what they have.

Yet for myself and others, the blunt edges of motivating words aren’t always sharp enough to cut through internalized self-doubt.

This feeling, also known as “imposter syndrome,” is rooted in the notion that one’s success is due only to luck and not one’s own qualifications. People affected by imposter syndrome believe that they are an imposter in their field: someone who has just convinced other people that they are qualified, while they themselves believe they’re really not. The term was first coined by psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes in a paper published in 1978. They theorized and demonstrated that high-achieving women are the group most impacted by this psychological turmoil. Further research has confirmed that imposter syndrome’s reach extends across all genders, sexual-orientations, races, socio-economic statuses, and more. Psychologist Audrey Ervin claims that now, the main sign of imposter syndrome is simply someone “who isn’t able to internalize and own their successes.”

My first encounter with the term came during my freshman year at Tufts. I was speaking with my sister’s best friend, a Tufts alumna who studied Electrical Engineering, went on to get a high-paying job in the field, and was even encouraged by her company to return to Tufts part time for her Masters Degree in Engineering Management. Despite all of this, she told to me that she felt the impact of imposter syndrome steadily throughout her engineering curriculum. Beyond that, she found it difficult to advocate for herself at work specifically.

Engineers have a tendency to pull away from social issues, judging solely based on objective fact, not subjective opinion. It seemed as though, because of this, engineering firms and companies were supposed to be open to everyone who could think—but, perhaps unsurprisingly, a group of White men living in a bubble had difficulty promoting a woman of color who was equally, if not more, qualified than many White men. Far too many times, I’ve heard women who had the opportunity to pursue higher education explain their success away as them just meeting a diversity quota—either by financial need, race, or both—not because of their ability. This feeling can continue on throughout their entire careers. But the self-doubt that plagues successful women who fall under other marginalized groups must be rooted in something even deeper than imposter syndrome.

As I began to take more Engineering courses this semester, I found myself becoming more aware of the racial and gender-based disparities in every classroom I walked into. For the entirety of my pre-college education, I grew up as one of the few people of color in the class, but I attributed the lack of diversity to the fact that my public school served a community that was 96 percent White. The sinking pit in my stomach when I’m one of few women of color in the room can’t be reduced to imposter syndrome alone. I don’t just feel as though I don’t belong—I do not belong. I don’t fit the societal norms of academia. A private institution like Tufts has no restriction on how many students of color they can accept. But at its core, the higher education system is unwelcoming to those that lack the privileges necessary to even get them in the door.

For the class of 2022, Tufts has seen an almost equal distribution of women and men in the School of Engineering. In pursuit of gender equity, however, Tufts has failed to actively consider other factors like race in its admissions practices. Beyond this, Tufts also lacks in representation among faculty of color, both in and out of the STEM field. In both the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering, faculty is dominated by White men. The School of Engineering is only comprised of 14.9 percent Asian, 1 percent Black and 1 percent Hispanic faculty members. The Engineering faculty is full of accomplished professors, set to inspire the next generation of engineers—but if I can’t see myself reflected among these White men, how can I be inspired as a woman of color?

My fight is not unique—women of color in STEM fields have been doing this work for decades. My first realization of this was only a few years ago, when I sat in my childhood family room, watching Hidden Figures with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law—all of us people of color, all of us engineers. The real-life accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson filled the screen with their photos at the end—and I was sobbing. Their stories affirmed my fight, somehow deepening my sorrow for the Black and Brown lives lost in the pursuit of science. That sorrow extended to the Asian people in STEM, whose accomplishments were simply written off to their race and not their ability. Despite that, these stories gave me even more strength to fight for recognition of not just our work, but our work ethic, passion, and capability.  

Furthermore, there is a fundamental need in STEM for people of color, particularly in the application of research. Scientific racism often involves applying research and using it to justify White supremacist ideals. The Bell Curve, written by psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray in 1994, argues that low-IQ people are more often found in non-White than White groups, and that policy should reflect that reality. Such an application of supposedly “objective” fact by White men sets a dangerous precedent for how STEM can be manipulated to further marginalize underrepresented communities. We need more people of color in scientific fields to prevent studies like these from gaining validity. By increasing our presence in this field, we can analyze data from a different perspective and take knowledge production into our own hands.

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The game of chess is often used as a metaphor for the game of life—how one should navigate and manipulate their opponent’s weaknesses and own advantages to advance further and further until they reach the top. But women of color—myself included—have been told that by studying traditionally difficult STEM fields, we shouldn’t dream of attaining these achievements. Whether it be via higher education or rising up the ranks at NASA—we are essentially told that by toughing it out for four years against White men, we should let them do the discovering and innovating, while we simply assist.

I owe my strength to the people of color—the women of color—who have fought and continue to fight against this norm, and whose work is too often forgotten because of their complexion. I owe my strength to my own mother and father. To my mother, an immigrant woman of color, who trained in engineering abroad and got her masters in engineering in the United States, then learned to code C++ immediately after it was invented. To my father, an immigrant man of color, who got his PhD from MIT and went on to teach engineering at other higher education institutions. To my father, for never doubting my capabilities despite being a woman and pushing me to make myself seen and heard in spaces otherwise dominated by White male faces.

While my elementary school classmates spent their February vacations sunning themselves on beach vacations, I was hunched over my kitchen table, playing chess for hours, motivated by a deep pit in my stomach—a pit that still exists to this day. When I returned back to chess club, I beat all of the smug faces that expected me to be an easy win, waiting for the moment at the end of every game when I could whisper the gratifying word: “checkmate.”