Czech Republic

When Women Feel Like Impostors

We spoke to sociologist Kateřina Cidlinská about the unequal conditions for women in academia.

Despite more and more women achieving university education, men still dominate the academic environment. The Czech National Contact Center for Gender and Science (NKC) is trying to draw attention to this situation and push through measures that would rectify it by removing discrimination and gender inequality from academia. Why is it so difficult for women to achieve leading positions in their fields, and what structural and subjective problems bar their way? Such were the questions we asked Kateřina Cidlinská, the coordinator of a mentoring initiative for early career researchers at the NKC, and a Ph.D. student of sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Prague.

Let me start with myself. I am almost thirty, have a doctoral degree and experience from abroad, but when I go to a conference, I am still afraid to raise my hand and ask a question. I feel like I have no business being there, that I found myself there by accident, that I lack sufficient knowledge and am generally just pretending. Why?

This phenomenon is called “impostor syndrome” and occurs quite often in academia. It is the result of gender stereotypes we absorb since childhood and as such affects primarily women. It does not matter whether they are students or experienced researchers; women doubt themselves much more than men – or, rather, they are more strict and critical towards themselves. They keep raising their own bars, they feel they have to work 150 percent in order to achieve anything. Of course, that is often true: when you take a look at studies where fake – and otherwise identical – CVs, signed by male and female names, were sent to employers looking to hire, the CVs signed by men received better ratings; the judges (of both sexes) found the fictional male candidate more competent. They were more likely to offer him the job and even suggested better pay than to the fictional female applicant.

When I asked my male colleagues whether they experience the same feelings of inadequacy, one told me that naturally they do, but try to camouflage them with self-confident and brash behavior. Are there any gender-specific strategies for dealing with the feeling of one’s own incompetence?

A confident man is just a swell guy, a confident woman will be considered an aggressive (meaning unpleasant) careerist.

Definitely, but the effects are different. When a man decides to suppress stress and jump headfirst into what he is doing, it will most likely look like healthy ambition and he will be rewarded for it. Women, on the other hand, are usually punished for this kind of behavior. This difference is about the character and traits we expect – and demand – from men and women: a confident man is just a swell guy, a confident woman will be considered an aggressive (meaning unpleasant) careerist. A leader’s qualities are good in a man – but a woman showing them is a shrew. Women are often aware of this and try not to display ambition – but that can lead to them being considered less capable and their superiors sometimes do not even realize they might be interested in a better position.

At the NKC, we try to educate leaders and managers in academic institutions about these stereotypes in order for them to know that they exist, how they work, and how to deal with them in a way that does not intentionally discriminate anyone. After all, it is in their own interest to have the most skilled researchers in their institution. That is why it is important to be able to distinguish between self-confidence and competence in others.

Apart from academia, where do we encounter this type of dynamic?

It happens mostly in intellectually challenging professions that require both education and experience. The assumption is that you need to have something more – creativity, a vision. That much is certainly true. The problem is we do not connect creativity and vision with women; since childhood, we all keep hearing that girls just learn the textbooks by heart without understanding anything. Small wonder that even women themselves can feel like they only crammed information into their heads but lack the necessary qualities – even if this scenario has nothing to do with reality.  

As long as we are talking about jobs that require a high degree of education – how does this dynamic interact with family or class background? Are they people from high-achieving families, always under pressure to succeed?

As far as impostor syndrome is concerned, I think this is less important than gender. The gender dimension permeates all other dimensions – like the social one – and further layers to the picture. Of course, if someone is the first to achieve a university education in their family, it definitely accentuates the feeling of incompetence: they have no one to ask for advice, they feel the academic environment is alien to them.

It seems to me that the feelings of insecurity and incompetence are also amplified by the system of short-term grant projects at the start of an academic career. Many early career researchers find themselves continuously looking for new job opportunities, making you test (and doubt) your skills time and again. Can I reasonably expect that upon achieving a long-term work contract the feeling of insecurity regarding my capabilities will be gone?

Women often do not believe that they could have a successful career in academia.

It might help a bit. In my research on people who decided to leave academia, the respondents replied that they felt more confident in their current, non-scientific jobs. Most of them worked long-term contracts and got much better deals on stability and the level of their salaries. On the other hand, academia is not all about economic stability, and there is also the normative idea of what a successful career looks like: getting one grant after another, assuming a leading position as soon as possible and receiving progressively more prestigious offices. Women often do not believe that they could have a successful career in academia. Motherhood enters the equation. Many, although naturally not all, women want to have children at precisely that stage of life when their academic career is taking off. They often feel there is no way to reconcile career and family because in an environment as competitive as academia, the inability to work at 150 percent with no breaks will ultimately backfire on you. That is one of the fundamental reasons why we see so few women in higher positions in academia.

That cannot be the only reason. More and more women attend universities, yet there are very few female professors in the Czech Republic.

Achieving the rank of an associate professor or professor is a very rigid procedure in the Czech Republic, something we were criticized for in the Czech Science Audit Technopolis 2011. The result of this procedure is that professors are older on average than their colleagues abroad because we have higher requirements for achieving the rank, and these requirements are harder still for women whose careers are often interrupted by childcare; during that period, female academics cannot concentrate to their fullest on teaching and publication. Men, even when they have children, usually do not suffer from this kind of career limitation.

Apart from professional criteria, there is also an insufficiently transparent process of selecting candidates, which is often influenced by backstage relationships – the contacts and support the candidate can draw from them. And since men have a much more stable background in academia, it stands to reason they have an easier time “knowing the right people.” Little wonder that women feel that advancing their careers requires considerably more effort than it does for men. Often it is more than just a feeling.

One interesting point your research raised was that respondents often mentioned their careering progressing slowly as a reason for abandoning work in academia – but this was more often expressed by men than women. Should we interpret this as a sign of women not aspiring to leading positions?

That is not the case, but the question I primarily dealt with was whether it was possible to combine work and have a family. In some fields, such as biological sciences, research advances so quickly that women do not want to leave the field even for a short while for fear of not being able to catch up, much less securing an important position. In “slower” fields, women often mentioned that they wanted to have children first and then consider whether they would manage to get back into academia. Men never thought about it this way, probably because they did not even consider the option of going on parental leave – in the Czech Republic, a full-time father is still a rare sight. Because of that, the male respondents did not think of the problem on an either-or axis; rather, they asked themselves the question of how far they can get if they stay in academia. Women, on the other hand, questioned whether they should stay at all.

If they decide to stay, then, what strategies do women use in order to advance their careers in academia?

If there is bullying in a workplace where a woman is the leader, the ones being bullied are most often other women.

Since it is a primarily masculine environment, we often encounter women trying to become “one of the guys,” which can even lead to lack of solidarity with other women. For example, sometimes when a woman manages to land a good position in a collective, she will try to get rid of other female candidates for nearby positions. We call this the “queen bee syndrome” and it is something we encountered multiple times during our research: if there is bullying in a workplace where a woman is the leader, the ones being bullied are most often other women. Being “one of the guys” also manifests as successful women claiming they never encountered any sexual harassment and if someone happens to grope their behind, they dismiss it as a joke. What they are really doing is trying to discredit the whole topic of gender inequalities in order for others not to think of them as those horrid feminists who might want to, god forbid, complain about something. And on the other hand, the women who try to draw attention to these problems are often considered hysterical and unable to deal with their own failures.

Under these conditions it seems almost impossible to do anything about the structural disadvantage women face.

Because we keep being told that there is no such problem. There is a silver lining, though: the fact that the number of women scientists stagnates while the number of women students and Ph.D. students keeps rising proves that this problem exists. The argument of natural selection is a chimera.

Is the situation any better in countries with a more active equal opportunities policy?

Yes. In countries with affirmative gender policies the situation got better; in the Czech Republic, however, the prevailing opinion is that there is no problem so there is also no reason to resolve it. After all, we are a progressive country, women gained the right to vote earlier here than in the West. And then there is the omnipresent reference to the Communist era as a negative example of what happens when we try to force equality between men and women. We poke fun at female crane operators and are terrified of the idea of having crèches for children under three years of age.

So the legacy of emancipatory politics under socialism has a rather negative impact on gender equality today?

Yes, and this is a big issue because anticommunism is very strong in this country. But saying that everything before 1989 was wrong is throwing the baby out with the bathwater; the support for female emancipation was not bad on its own, the problem was the way it was put into practice. And this was obviously connected to the fact politicians preferred buffing up the economy over the actual treatment of women. So they made women work and that included qualified professions, but no one spared a second thought for what other aspects of society need be transformed in order to really be able to talk about “gender equality.” No one concerned themselves with the emancipation of men – which is naturally another requirement for a truly equal position for men and women in society – no one stressed that in families with working women, men need to take part in caring for the children and running the household. It was the communists who placed the infamous double burden on women, forcing them to work in two shifts: at work and after coming back home.

Does this mean the inclusion of women in education and the job system alone is insufficient? Do we need rather need men to change their understanding of gender equality?

If we start changing the way we think about the roles of women and men in society, we can start limiting negative phenomena like impostor syndrome.

We have reached the point where women are emancipated but men still think feminism is something aimed against them. They think they are losing out on something and this makes them nervous. But it is just that we have not made the second step yet – historically, feminism focused on women as the group discriminated against by law. And while legal inequality has been removed, a practical one did not follow. This is why even in the second half of the 20th century, feminism focused primarily on women. And we, as women, owe it a lot – the possibility of studying and working without having to secure our husband’s explicit consent, teachers do not have to be celibate anymore… Absurd as these examples seem nowadays, there are plenty of them. But those girls that scorn feminism today do not realize that.

Now we need to give the same kind of attention to men. Explain to them the advantages of living in a society where they do not have to feel inadequate for not having the most expensive car in the street, if their wife has a higher salary of if they would like to go on parental leave. If we start changing the way we think about the roles of women and men in society, we can start limiting negative phenomena like impostor syndrome.

Let us get back to affirmative policy. Do quotas for women make sense?

Balancing the physical numbers of men and women in jobs means women are not put under such scrutiny. This is important because if it were not the case, a woman in a high position that makes a mistake is much more visible. If a man makes the same mistake, he simply did not handle it right; no one will think of saying “he just does not have what it takes.” The quotas are there to balance this long-running, historical example of inequality, but it is this long history that makes it so hard to get rid of. Quotas, despite having a horrible reputation in the Czech Republic, work really well for that: women feel that they can succeed in a fair competition, that is worth trying.

The counter-argument is that the quality of work suffers because of plenty of “incompetent women” get jobs who would never get into those positions otherwise. But it does not work that way; just take a look at the countries that have been using the quotas for decades, making it possible to measure their impact. It turns out quotas actually result in more competent people in general entering the job market because it allows skilled women who would otherwise not compete for jobs on account of internal reasons, such as impostor syndrome. In other words, quotas prevent incompetent men from getting “the job” by making them face tougher competition presented by letting competent women in.

Do you think the dislike for quotas and the idea everything will sort itself out by natural selection has something to do with the brutal, competition-focused environment established in the Czech Republic the nineties?

There is nothing wrong with trying to steer the course of society and it definitely is not some kind of communist fabrication.

The nineties rhetoric and the legacy of communism is a real disaster for the Czech work environment. Throughout the nineties, we fell for the idea propagated by former Prime Minister Václav Klaus and his ilk that in the West, economic competition is the solution of all problems (and as such, it must work the same way here). But it never worked like that here or there. There are always unequal conditions dictating who has a better chance of succeeding.

In the Czech Republic, whenever someone comes up with an idea for some kind of measure to support equal opportunities for women and men, an outcry of “social engineering” immediately follows. It is a mantra applicable to literally anything – we in the NKC have been accused of social engineering just because we give recommendations to universities on how teachers should act in order to limit phenomena like sexual harassment. There is nothing wrong with trying to steer the course of society and it definitely is not some kind of a communist fabrication. It is the meaning of politics – to set the rules of the game and steer society in a way we consider right at any given time. And the equality of men and women is written in our laws, so our goal should be for it to come off the paper and start happening in real life, including education and academia. If we do not change the course in which academia is moving, we will end up with fewer and fewer women – and more and more male “sharks.”

Translation by Michal Chmela

Veronika Pehe
is a historian and editor at