We are not imposters: Women drop out of STEM faster than men

A few months ago, I spoke to a brilliant friend who confessed that she left her dream job as a neurosurgeon. She was assaulted by a male superior who threatened to destroy her career should she report him.

In my last article for London Student, I interviewed another terrific woman, Ghazal Owen, who revealed that she did not report assault because “there could be backlash from other supervisors for reporting an incident.”

I have shared my similar experiences online, too. The same stories pop up again and again, but most go unreported because the men in question usually have the upper hand. What we see in STEM is all too similar to the well-publicised Hollywood cases: certain powerful, predatory men abuse unsuspecting women.

Despite #MeToo, this abuse still happens. For this reason alone, it should not be surprising that women drop out of STEM subjects far faster than men, a phenomenon known as the “leaky pipeline.” The number of female STEM graduates now exceeds the number of male graduates in the same subjects, but this has only just chipped the glass ceiling. Women are still 23% more likely to drop out of their STEM careers.

This is not groundbreaking news. It should come as no surprise, reader, that women generally have a hard time in male-dominated fields. This world has been (and is still) primarily run by men.

Change is slow

How can we change this?

The continuous abuse of women reflects that women are not truly valued as equal to their male counterparts in STEM industries. Despite efforts to raise awareness that women in the fields of science and technology are often abused or put down by their male colleagues, change is slow. This surely means that we need to go further to uncover the roots of equality; simply accusing men of assault and dishing out opportunities to women is not enough. What good is that when people still believe that women are not as worthy as men?

There is a backwards, lingering, yet often unspoken belief that women are less clever than men. This belief presents itself in different ways: this belief comes to life as a subtle micro-aggression, or it is voiced very loudly. I once encountered a man who suddenly blurted out that women seemed – to him – less capable of intelligent conversation. This was an intelligent man with a medical degree. He subsequently sent me a PowerPoint presentation featuring some botched statistics which tried (and failed) to prove that men are more intelligent than women.

Perhaps there are more men who have the very same ideas, but who mask them behind tact and etiquette.

Then there are the men who have spoken to me as though I know nothing at all about the basic laws of physics. I have a physics degree. Such is the mansplaining phenomenon.

This is experienced by many women worldwide. It is far from unheard of in physics: theoretical physicist Veronika Hubeny had her own theories mansplained to her on stage at the World Science Festival in 2017. The audience noticed: “Let her speak, please!” was greeted with rapturous applause.

Imposter syndrome

With these cases in mind, it is no wonder that women are considerably more likely to suffer from “imposter syndrome” than men. The syndrome is a condition defined as “a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’”

It is thought that more than 45% of female academics suffer from imposter syndrome, whilst 95% displayed characteristics indicative of the condition.

If women are continuously spoken down to, then the imposter feeling becomes internalised. And once internalised, it’s difficult to overcome this inadequacy. The world has told you that you can’t.

I agree with Yomi Adegoke, who wrote in the Guardian that “imposter syndrome is a response to a world that doesn’t believe in women.”

These feelings are only perpetuated in a vicious cycle of inequality. The comedian Deborah Frances-White recently said in The Guilty Feminist podcast, “most of us are walking into rooms we are invited to as if we’re not invited… We gotta cut that shit out.”

And if you don’t trust yourself, other people won’t. As Michelle Obama said: “My advice to young women is that you have to start by getting those demons out of your head. The questions I ask myself – ‘am I good enough? – are the ones that haunt us, because the messages that are sent from the time we are little are: maybe you are not, don’t reach too high, don’t talk too loud.”

Creating a more equal future in which women are just as likely to succeed as men means raising boys and girls to believe they are just as capable as each other. That they can pursue the path they wish independently of their gender. It means not only continuing to battle the violation of women by men and calling out abusive behaviour, but also instilling the belief that women are just as worthy as men, and instilling this belief in both men and women.

Penny Richmond is a UCL physics graduate.

Photo credit: Pikrepo, under Creative Commons.


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