In academic and professional fields that require “brilliance”, or raw talent, women are more likely to feel like “impostors”, and it’s worse for women from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, new research has found.

Many high-achieving women feel professionally inadequate, despite evidence of their competence and success, the study by a team of psychology researchers has discovered.

These women have stronger impostor feelings because they are targeted by negative gender, racial and ethnic stereotypes about their intellect, according to Melis Muradoglu, a New York University doctoral candidate and lead author of the research paper.

Muradoglu told Information Age researchers have become increasingly interested in understanding the contextual roots of the impostor phenomenon, which is more than just about personal feelings.

“In line with this trend, we think the results of this work more aptly position impostor feelings at the intersection of individuals' identity and their environments,” Muradoglu said.

The researchers gathered over 4,000 professionals recruited from nine research-intensive US universities, representing more than 80 fields across the natural and social sciences, the humanities and medicine – the largest sample of academics that has been focused on the impostor phenomenon to date.

Respondents had to rate their level of experiences of impostor feelings, such as the fear of being found to lack ability or a particular aptitude to be at the top of their field.

The more it was aligned to the idea of a unique talent that can’t be taught, the more women reported feeling like imposter.

Although the research centred on academia, Muradoglu believes it’s relevant to professional workplaces. “The findings could be extended to workplaces outside academia as well,” she said.

“It is likely that workplaces can have environments that, like many fields in academia, place a high premium on brilliance.”

The root causes of imposter syndrome

Impostor feelings are linked to a lower sense of belonging in a field and lower self-efficacy, highlighting the potential negative implications of the impostor phenomenon for academics' long-term success and for the diversity of fields that value brilliance.

“Feeling like an impostor is common among successful individuals, but particularly among women and early-career professionals,” the researchers said in the report.

The notion of impostor syndrome is often thought of as an individual affliction, but this research indicates it is related to context, in this case the academic discipline.

This isn’t the first time the concept of brilliance has been shown to have a gender bias, with earlier research by one of the team suggesting women are underrepresented in careers where success is perceived to depend on high levels of intellectual ability.

It also relates to stereotypes, where an implicit, automatic association comes to mind between certain traits, such as brilliance, and certain groups, for example men.

“People explicitly say they associate women with brilliance. Yet implicit measures reveal a different story about the more automatic gender stereotypes that come to mind when thinking about brilliance,” said Tessa Charlesworth, Harvard University doctoral student and co-author of the research paper.

Worse for women in STEM

The research compared imposter feelings between different professional fields and found STEM, social sciences and humanities were collectively worse for the imposter syndrome than medical and health sciences.

STEM alone shows the worst results for imposter feelings, which may be linked to a larger gender gap in that field.

Increasing women’s participation in STEM professions may help, but their numbers are still less than equal.

In Australia, women made up less than a quarter of students studying STEM in 2019 and five years after graduating, STEM-qualified men were 1.8 times more likely to be working in a related occupation than women, according to the 2021 STEM Equity Monitor.

The report found more is needed to achieve the government’s vision for gender equity in STEM in Australia by 2030.