A few years ago, a colleague of mine asserted that pride was the original sin shared by everyone. I thought for a moment, and had to admit that I did not resonate with his assessment. Pride assumed that one had more confidence than they should, or that it was misplaced. But I—and many of my female colleagues and students—hardly suffered from that. Instead we struggled to believe we had anything to contribute. Self-doubt, not pride, was our demon.
Call this the impostor syndrome, a psychological term for someone's overall inability to internalize their own accomplishments, and the topic on Scot McKnight's blog recently. Sufferers attribute successes not to their gifts and achievements but to luck, sheer timing, affirmative action, or their ability to trick others. They tend to downplay success when someone congratulates them. According to a study cited by McKnight, "This syndrome is thought to be particularly common among women who are successful in their given careers and is typically associated with academics …. It is also widely found among graduate students."
McKnight cited an e-mail from a female colleague, an academic who, due to ingrained ideas about intellect and gender, had internalized the sense that she didn't belong at the table:
Even being a woman myself, I'm aware that I don't value women as much as I value men. While I read many books by and about women or girls when I was younger, as I got older I somehow acquired prejudice against them. I even noticed that if I was enjoying a book and then found out the author was female I would be disappointed and immediately, on those grounds alone, think less of it. I'm starting to recover from that now, as I learn that being female or feminine does not make someone or something intrinsically worth less in significance, value, or virtue. It's nice not feeling I have to distance myself from all things feminine to have value or be valued by other people.
Perhaps impostor syndrome's prevalence among women is a result of the deeply rooted idea that women belong only in the household sphere while men own public life. The ancient world borrowed this model from Aristotle, and the Victorians echoed the sentiment as they responded to the industrial revolution by bifurcating family structures. But the gospel of Christ undercuts this vision of divided society as it enables both women and men to engage their gifts and accomplishments in God's service.
By labeling as "impostor syndrome" the failure to internalize levels of expertise, we take steps to control and manage it. Once I know that others believe themselves to be impostors, suddenly I am no longer fighting a personal battle alone. Instead, I experience together with others a social pressure that minimizes our accomplishments, or at least suggests that it is not ladylike to have them. Once a larger social community is aware of the syndrome, steps can be taken to mitigate its effects. The simplest and most effective way forward is for those not suffering from this syndrome to be sensitive to others who might be.
As a professor at a Christian college, I should be especially alert to students (and there will be more females than males in this category) who resist positive feedback and risk selling themselves short in terms of further education or career choices. To my colleagues (again, mostly female), I should model sincere interest in their work, take their contributions seriously, and encourage them to reach beyond what they think they can do. I regularly ask my female colleagues to read my work and comment on how I can improve it. And I make myself available to read their work.
I am also fortunate to have received encouragement from several male colleagues, who not only repeatedly push me to write but also read my drafts and offer helpful suggestions. In my case, it is especially important to have male input, as academia is generally seen as a male domain. Having women in positions of authority, such as department chairs, deans, or college presidents, also helps shape expectations for women's competencies in academic settings. As more women take up leadership responsibilities successfully, fewer men and women assume that women as a group are inferior to men in achieving workplace goals.
Finally, Christians have the opportunity to challenge the impostor syndrome in at least two ways. First, we can critique the assumption that a person has value based purely on how productive or intelligent he or she is. Second, we can address the implicit competition that makes scholarship and learning a zero-sum game, with only winners and losers. Instead, we can view each person's growth and success as a benefit to the wider goals of greater knowledge and more active service.
Lynn Cohick is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and author most recently of Women in the World of the Earliest Christians (Baker Academic). She has written for the women's blog about men and women on the Titanic, Jesus' mother, and mammograms.