Fostering impostor syndrome? Thoughts about female role models

I’ve been home for the last month or so, waiting for my visa to the US to be processed, writing papers and catching up with science in general. I might have too much time and energy on my hands, but this week I came across two news items, which really drove me mad. First, I saw a multi-page advert for AcademiaNet (“The Portal to Excellent Woman Academics”), highlighting all the amazing female scientists that are part of their network. Then I read these portraits of female scientists, who double as crime writers, singers, beauty queens… on Discov-her. I’m sure these ads were published with the best intentions: giving women in science role models to look up to. But here’s the thing: I’m a “woman in science” and I ab-so-lu-tely HATE such ads. Is it not enough for me to know how the odds for a career in science are apparently stacked against me from the get-go? Do I also need to be reminded that there are super-women out there who manage to juggle a successful scientific career, a family and maybe even a second alternative career? Being bombarded with such portraits is not encouraging – it’s intimidating.

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When role models make me feel like a fake…

Don’t get me wrong: I have enormous respect for the women who were portrayed on these sites. I even find their their stories motivating – but only in low doses. If I come across stories of mega-succesful female scientists everywhere I look, then I all I get is a severe case of impostor syndrome. Reading these portraits I get the feeling that average or somewhat-above-average women do not exist in science. That the ones who make it are either insanely driven or extremely gifted. Maybe both driven and talented.

What if you’re just a pretty decent scientist? Have you failed if you don’t achieve all those things the role model female scientists have? Or are role models in science like fashion models: their awesomeness and perfection has a degree of unattainability which we may strive for, but in the end, they are just another way to highlight our imperfections?

Personally, I think it’d be great to see a more realistic picture of the women in science from time to time. Maybe something like the stories of the women behind #DistractinglySexy or #ManicureMonday? One could still show high-achieving female academics, but by putting their achievements into a more representative context would be a considerably more helpful for young scientists like myself.

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2 thoughts on “Fostering impostor syndrome? Thoughts about female role models

  1. Totally agree. I get imposter syndrome looking at these profiles myself! Sadly, my (fashion) modeling career never really progressed as I had hoped… 🙂

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