My brilliant female friend announced this weekend that she would be moving to Boston for work for a tenure-track position at a university that would give her significant amounts of funding for research. When I asked her where, she responded with a tentative voice and a slouch, “Harvard.” We exploded with enthusiasm and congratulations, and she visibly relaxed, but she clearly felt uncomfortable lauding this most incredible and well-deserved accomplishment. It got me thinking about my own work, and even this blog, where I have expressed the importance of vulnerability and embracing the potential for failure. While I stand by this view, I wonder if there is a difference between acknowledging the possibility of failure and being somehow self-deprecating about my abilities because I am uncomfortable with the possibility of success. I am incredibly fearful of failure, particularly in public, and I wonder why. I have literally never failed anything (academic) and I am lucky to be surrounded with people who constantly reinforce and support my endeavors. So why would I believe I might suddenly fail now? Wood is still a boys’ club, for sure, despite growing numbers of women in the trade, and this dates back literally for centuries. I have been in, and now witnessed, several of the wood design classes, and none of the men are openly generous with self-doubt, when the women often are. Just last week I was talking with a male student in the class about all the time I’ve logged down in the shop, but how this “by no means should lead him to believe I actually know what I’m doing.” Is this behavior actually baring my vulnerability for the sake of thoughtful academic discourse, or am I falling prey to the impostor syndrome? The answer is hopefully that it’s a little bit of both. My hope is to move forward remaining conscious of the value of exposing process and the potential for failure, but to do so with more self-confidence and a little bit of pride.
This phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt has a name–the impostor syndrome. Both men and women are susceptible to the impostor syndrome, but women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it….For women, feeling like a fraud is a symptom of a greater problem. We consistently underestimate ourselves. Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is…Even worse, when women evaluate themselves in front of other people or in stereotypically male domains, their underestimations can become even more pronounced.-Cheryl Sandberg, Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (New York: Knopf, 2013) 29-30.