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Letter to the editor: CMU STEM Imposter Syndrome

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This semester I enrolled in Concepts of Mathematics, a required class for my anticipated Statistics major. Concepts is one of those 15-112-esque Carnegie Mellon classes that people tout as being all-nighter hard, life-destroying hard, impossibly hard.

Indeed, it is a difficult class: the math is very different from what we learned in high school, and it takes a while to get acclimated to what the problems ask of you. The homework is challenging and time-consuming, and some of the concepts went right over my head. I got good grades in my high school math classes, but not without the nagging suspicion that I was earning them thanks to faith, luck, and a little bit of pixie dust. It seems the jig was finally up: here was a math class that I could not fake my way through. When I received my first homework score during recitation, I took a deep breath and started thinking about abandoning both the class and, consequently, a major in Statistics.

I didn’t though, because later that day our professor posted the class mean and median on Blackboard. My score may have been bad compared to how I’d done in Calc 3, but they were several points above the class average. I wasn’t doing great — but neither was anyone else. Another way for me to look at it: if I wasn’t good at math, apparently neither was about two thirds of the class.

If you’re a woman and this situation sounds familiar, this is no surprise: it is called Imposter Syndrome. In 1978, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes researched people who, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments ... believe that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.” They found that this trait is present in women more frequently and with more intensity than with men. In general, while women would consider their success a result of either luck or hard work, men tended to attribute it to their inherent ability.
My older sister (and feminist hero) mentioned something similar to me when I was explaining to her in high school that I was bad at chemistry. She asked what my grades were and I admitted they were As and B-pluses. She told me to think about a boy who got those same grades— “Would he ever say that he was bad at chemistry? Would he ever even think it?”

It’s intimidating to try and address a problem so deeply rooted in gender roles. Clance and Imes discussed Margaret Mead’s 1949 observation that a “successful woman is viewed as a hostile and destructive force within society,” and how women have internalized it. We fear being successful because we fear being rejected by society; if we convince ourselves that we aren’t really smart, we can ignore the fact that society might hate us, because it just doesn’t apply.
There are, however, concrete steps that we can take to ensure that Imposter Syndrome affects fewer women. One of the easiest is mentioned above: when professors release basic statistics that show performance on tests and homeworks it enables women to stop speculating about their ability and see where they really lie. It brings us one step closer to a university where everyone feels like they deserve to be here.

Malaika Handa is a Dietrich College sophomore at Carnegie Mellon.