Seventy-five percent of executive women have experienced imposter syndrome and 85 percent believe it is commonly experienced by women across corporate America, according to a 2020 study by professional services firm KPMG. Imposter syndrome is the persistent feeling of personal and intellectual fraudulence — a feeling that one does not belong where one is at in one’s career or education.
Maybe you have experienced this feeling. And if you have, you’re not alone.
As a writing major who only recently tacked on a major in philosophy, politics and economics, I spent my first two years at Calvin in the safe haven of the English department, where humility is a given, people speak softly and feelings are valid and frequent topics of discussion. Oh, and a majority of my professors and classmates were women.
Nowadays, I spend most of my class time in the new department of politics and economics in Hiemenga Hall. Since my first introduction to political science through a core course, but especially as I have moved into upper-level courses, I have become increasingly aware that, when I walk into these classrooms, I am entering a space that is not designed for me.
Some of these courses cultivate a spirit of antagonism not to be found in the CFAC: to be successful, you need to be able to stake out a position and defend it, to attack the opposition. That is, you must have the kind of confidence in your own opinion and in your own voice which is whittled away from women starting in childhood. You are expected to walk in on day one with the kind of confidence instilled in young men by the mechanisms of our patriarchal society (differing social expectations applied from a young age, role models, etc.) — a confidence displayed by male classmates who shout corrections and counters across rooms, sometimes spontaneously applaud in irony and banter with professors. Compared to the quiet and shared respect of discussions in English classrooms, this is overwhelming to be in the midst of.
The course curriculums in these departments are different, too. I have encountered more basketball metaphors in a single week in PPE than I did in two years in the CFAC. Class examples feature football, secret military operations, the Karate Kid and other interests traditionally encouraged in men. Starting sentences with “I feel” is frowned upon.
I brace myself mentally walking into these classes, and sometimes I come out internally trembling, feeling the depth of conflict between the confident debate and engagement I try to throw myself into and the subtle sense of transgression I still feel when I contradict my male peers or resist the desire to hedge my answers with “maybe”s and uncertainty.
Despite grasping the material, I experience a moment of panic before I contribute to class conversations. Despite meticulous preparation, I always have a nagging thought that perhaps I’ve misunderstood or misread the material.
It continues to unsettle me that even courses with similar gender demographics — in fact, even courses that are primarily women — are verbally dominated by the men.
The lingering feeling that a space is designed with a specific type of person in mind, and that that type is not what I am, accentuates the imposter syndrome that many women in male-dominated fields feel. It’s far too easy, when I get my first bad grade in one of these courses, to follow the unspoken narrative to its logical conclusion — that I simply don’t belong in this room.
The best feeling, though, is being told after class by another woman that you were right, or thank you for saying what you said. That feeling is what keeps me in the room, and it’s why you should stay in the room, too.
To the women in politics, economics, engineering, computer science, physics and everywhere else where there aren’t a lot of female footsteps to follow: we’re in this together; we’re the ones making the footprints.
Let’s do all we can to keep female voices in every classroom on campus.