There’s something strange about the world’s brightest women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) connecting around one common theme: their own personal insecurity. It’s even more remarkable when this unlikely point of connection propels them toward their career goals.
I experienced this first-hand in a workshop, “Women Advancing Together” sponsored by the Lehigh University’s Department of Biological Sciences and their National Science Foundation Advance Program. It was not unlike hearing women with anorexia nervosa lament their obesity. These women were the cream of their respective crops. They were top-tier university administrators and full professors with long lists of publications and grant proposals rated in the top 9% of those submitted. They were bright, young assistant professors ranked above hundreds of applicants for the same job, and they were students ranked in the top of their graduating classes. Despite these credentials, they all shared similar stories of serious and even crippling crises of confidence, i.e., self-confidence. More important, I learned that if I stop writing here, or if you stop reading here, we might be part of the evil forces creating the problem. So, please, read on!
Something short of a miracle occurred when the women joined together in this workshop to confront their fears, embrace their true talents, and promote their own future success. This remarkable transformation was accomplished with the encouragement and guidance of the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California, Nancy Wayne. Thanks, Nancy!
The workshop started with the well-known, dismal statistics, but ended with a transformative twist. First, we were reminded that there is a substantial gender gap in STEM employment, a gap that grows from a crevice to a grand canyon at the ranks of full professor/senior scientist. Only 5% of full professors in engineering are women. Furthermore, there is a persistent wage gap; women who have landed STEM jobs are paid significantly lower salaries than men in the same position. Not encouraging news, but Nancy countered with evidence that low self-esteem is reversible.
To support this idea, Nancy showed that women who enter engineering fields have credentials and performance levels equal to those of their male counterparts, but the same women have lower levels of self-esteem and self-confidence correlated with stalled advancement. Another graph showed that, after taking an exam but before receiving their grade, those who underestimate their grade tend to be women, whereas those who overestimate their grade tend to be men. Still another graph showed that women negotiate their salaries far less than do men, and as a result, each individual woman stands to lose more than $500,000.00 in salary by the time they are 60 years of age. Nancy is in a good position to know that the wage gap is reversible because she has successfully corrected her salary and recovered her own lost wages. If this were the end of the workshop, however, the dismal statistics would persist far into the future.
Identity-Safe Environments Work for Women
The important twist in Nancy’s version of the story came when she showed her own published data that she collected while she was training women in medical school. She found that women trainees were less likely than their male counterparts to volunteer for leadership positions. More important, she showed that the trend is reversed by subtle suggestions to the contrary. Nancy documented a fact well-known to psychologists: crises of confidence are either averted by “identity safety” or exaggerated by “stereotype threat” (Davies et al., 2005).
Stereotype threat is the fear that an individual‘s performance will justify a negative stereotype of the group with which the individual identifies. This fear affects performance in a direction that supports the stereotype. A well-known example is that poor math performance occurs when girls are told that “girls are bad at math.” The good news is that the vortex of stereotype threat is not inevitable. The opposite occurs when girls perform math in an identity-safe environment, that is, they are told that girls and boys don’t differ in math ability. Is it a lie to say that girls and boys don’t differ in math? Not if the difference is ameliorated and girls math scores improve by telling that “lie.” The bottom line is, when the stereotype involves women’s identity, stereotype threat can be mitigated by the suggestion that women and men do not differ in their ability.
Women Advancing Together
After the data presentation, Nancy instructed the participants to break into groups of 5-8 for some guided discussion. She first instructed the groups to share a time when they might have experienced self-doubt or a case of “imposter syndrome” (wherein we fail to acknowledge our achievements and therefore fear that we might be exposed as frauds at any given moment). There was no hesitation here, and most women struggled to limit their story to one example. At my table, all of the women spilled out feelings of debilitating anxiety and loneliness as they faced career transitions. The intensity was magnified when women moved up and out, from different countries, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, or geographic regions within the same country. During this outpouring of emotion, the discomfort melted away. A reciprocal flow of intimacy, empathy, and support seemed to clear the way for strength and confidence.
After this critical step, the stage was set for the realization that we had all survived and made it through our personal trials. Nancy finessed the group onward to acknowledge and share our talents and skills. We were invited to answer the question “What are your strengths?” There was a moment of silence, and then another outpouring. The skill set at our table was formidable. These women were expert computer programmers, software engineers, chemical engineers, biomedical imaging experts, microscopists, architects, civil and mechanical engineers, teachers, writers, scholars, and facilitators of change. As each woman shared her journey, we all learned different ways of coping with self-doubt.
One fascinating comment came from the women who had grown up in China, where teamwork and humility are valued over individual achievement and self promotion. They said that, after living in the U.S. for a while, they decided to assume the very American idea of the “self made man.” It was funny to realize that this cartoon stereotype actually might be useful. Some prominent American males grow up with this “boot-strap” notion and tend to take it to mythological extremes, but in this case, it works as a tangible point of cross cultural exchange. Picking up on this theme, another woman shared her spin on the boot-strap idea from a classic book entitled “Composing A Life.” Our relaxed, meandering conversation sparked a transformation. Whereas social forces had been conspiring to limit our individuality and advancement, our group forged a bond based on the idea that we can be the authors of our lives, lives that truly exists independent of persistent stereotypes, perceptions, and projections.
If we feel stupid, so what? In STEM, one useful strategy is to face the necessity of feeling stupid while we work at the frontiers of knowledge. By definition, a frontier exists beyond the limits of what is known. Scientists therefore must enjoy and seek out the opportunity to feel stupid because that feeling is the signal that you have found the end of what is known and have courageously leapt off the cliff into the unknown. Authoring new knowledge requires that you first recognize your authentic ignorance about the answer to an important scientific question. Your hypothesis may or may not be true, but there is no guarantee that it will be supported by your data. My own mentor used to say that “Your hypothesis was no less brilliant just because it turned out to be wrong.” There is no point in doing research on a documented fact. Engaging in the scientific process requires the strength to feel stupid until you collect enough data to support (or refute) your hypothesis.
At another table, it was noted that experience in athletics or gaming had provided a foundation for persistence and fortitude. Those of us who played softball know that if you strike out, you don’t quit, you simply step up to the plate in the next inning. There are always new innings, and even if you lose, there are more games, and even if you lose the championships, there will be more seasons. For other women, it helped in times of self doubt to remind themselves of the people who first believed in them, those who opened doors, and provided opportunities. They were buoyed by their fear of disappointing those people and propelled by their desire to prove those people right. Other strategies included sharing fears with supportive friends and reminding each other that stereotype threat can be averted when we establish an identity-safe environment.
A related problem is that traits valued in men are often less valued in women, and these traits are devalued in women by both men and women. In men, leadership qualities are seen as positive, whereas in women they are seen as bossy. Women who are direct, logical, clear, concise, and bold, are labeled “ice queens” or “bitches.” Some women at our table have come to accept that they are not well liked. Women who excel in their field will lose their high status in social circles built on gossip and shared failures, but in the end, this is a good thing. When women seek other women across the disciplines, they find their tribe. We got a taste of this in Nancy’s workshop. We saw that when women persist in their goals while feeling lost or stupid, and when they band together to support each other, the fears and anxiety dissipate, and talent and creativity take over. The best way to combat fears about losing friends and allies is to join forces with women who find themselves in the same dilemma. One of the most gratifying parts of the day came when the participants started trading contact information and making plans for future meetings and collaborations. We learned why Nancy Wayne names her workshops “Women Advancing Together.”
The best part of it all was knowing that Nancy Wayne and I have been advancing along with another workshop participant and Full Professor and Associate Dean, Jennifer Swann since the 1980’s. Jennifer and I both agree, our friendship with Nancy has been fantastic. Here are the three amigas at happy hour, listening to our science colleague, Assistant Professor Julie Miwa, jamming on the saxaphone and drinking to our mystery achievements.