Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Perfect Storm

This post continues the discussion of the Dunning-Kruger effect--a condition in which a person who is incompetent is unable to recognize their deficiencies and tends to hold an over-inflated view of their skills.  I contrasted Dunning-Kruger with the "imposter syndrome" in which the person is unable to internalize their accomplishments and fears being discovered to be incompetent or unqualified.  

Feminists have focused on the imposter syndrome as an unfortunate reaction suffered by some women working in fields dominated by men (although either gender may experience it, e.g., as students).  It occurred to me that the contrasting syndrome--Dunning-Kruger may also pose a problem for women in STEM fields.

As a woman in science (especially government science), I encounter people who suffer from the Dunning-Kruger syndrome--or something that seems very close to it. Their performance is woefully sub-standard, yet they exude supreme confidence in their abilities.  In the past, I was completely mystified as to how such people could maintain such an elevated opinion despite being told repeatedly that their performance was poor (these are the students who insist that they are "A" students despite scoring consistent "Cs" on exams).  I now understand that their overall gross incompetence includes the lack of skills needed to accurately evaluate their performance and that of others.  Once these people get into the workforce, they continue to over estimate their capabilities and contributions, as well as the performance of people they work with. Despite explicit evidence to the contrary (lack of progress on projects, inability to write or publish anything of substance, lack of creativity), some manage to get ahead (or at least avoid being fired), in large part due to their overconfident behavior and/or the inaccurate assessment by others who also lack the necessary skills to recognize their incompetency.

So how might someone with Dunning-Kruger, who is poor at assessing competence in themselves and others, have an impact on women in STEM fields?

Lacking the necessary cognitive skills to accurately judge competency, Dunning-Kruger sufferers look for other signals to guide their opinions of themselves and others.  One easy option is to put people into neat categories to which certain general attributes can be ascribed (race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status)...in other words, stereotypes. Stereotypes make it much easier for such people to judge people and their performance.  Gender X is good at skill A, but poor at skill B.  Younger people are better at skill C than old people. Members of a specific group may rate others of their group highly (because of their own high opinion of themselves). 

We can see this behavior in action among members of the "old boy network" (I don't for a second believe that this entity has gone extinct...only underground).  Implicit in the "old boy network" is the acceptance of other males as worthy of perks, recommendations, and support.  A male, who acts confident, is typically gauged to be competent--regardless of his actual performance. If one fails at a task, it's rationalized that he "just had a bad day" or that some external event caused the failure.  All the members of the "old boy network" talk in glowing terms about each other, further enhancing their self-images.  If a male newcomer is somewhat less grandiose in his self-diagnosis, the persistent back-slapping by other males may lead to a more pompous attitude ("if everyone thinks I'm so great, it must be so!").

The combination of coworkers who have overinflated views of themselves and superiors who cannot adequately assess other people's skills creates a "perfect storm" situation for a woman in science.

Someone unable to accurately evaluate other people's competencies may be more likely to make a mistake about the performance of a woman who is working in a non-traditional field.  Evidence as to her superior abilities may be completely ignored, because their erroneous perception is based on something else (e.g., stereotypes).  If she makes a mistake, she's automatically judged to be incompetent, because a single error is easier to focus on than putting it into the larger context of her overall skill set and previous performance.  If she has a tendency toward imposter syndrome, then this unrealistic treatment will greatly exacerbate her condition.  If she is surrounded by an old boys network, then she'll have to be very strong indeed to avoid feeling diminished and marginalized.

On the other hand, if this same female finds herself mostly surrounded by people who are skilled at assessing true capabilities, then she will likely be accepted as highly competent and will be less affected by those colleagues who hold exaggerated views of themselves. 


Amanda said...

Very interesting stuff. I'm glad I found you. I'll stop by often.

Swamp Thing said...

What an eye-opening post!

The "Old Boys Network" only persists where it's tolerated. As the "old boys" continue to retire, the number of such workplaces is decreasing. If you are in such a place where this culture exists, I'm sorry. It's not the problem that it was even 10 years ago. Hopefully it will continue to decrease!

I'd like to know the scientific basis for your claim that being a male who works with males is causative to incompetence and baseless ego-inflation. Thanks for letting me know that I am genetically predisposed to these types of issues.

I also fail to see how YOUR gender directly gives you some clairvoyant ability to observe and diagnose false confidence syndromes in male employees. Your statement on the topic was pretty aggressive.

It's really disappointing to see such broadly brushed statements about gender.......on a blog dedicated to gender equality. I have visited this blog for a few years to get another take (there are not that many wetland scientist blogs) on workplace issues, and I can't imagine I will be coming back to read.

And based on this post, that's not important to you in your search for gender equality, because "after all, I'm just a man."

DrDoyenne said...

I don't expect everyone to agree with everything I say and am happy to post contrasting opinions. However, several statements by Swamp Thing are not accurate.

In the event that my post was not clear in its content or intent, I will clarify my opinions about the issues this reader raised:

1) I did not apply "false confidence" behavior to males only. Throughout the post, I referred to "people", "someone", "co-workers", etc. in making general statements about both Dunning-Kruger and Imposter Effects.

2) The impetus for writing this post was based on recent interactions with both male and female acquaintances who seem to suffer from false confidence. Much of what I write is based on specific experiences, but I change the details substantially to avoid identification of the person who inspired the post (some readers know my identity and could conceivably guess). I selected the anonymous "old boys network" in this case because I did not want to provide personal details to illustrate this idea.

3) I never said that males were "genetically predisposed" to Dunning-Kruger. The first example I used was students who believe they are "A students" despite making Cs routinely. I did not designate gender in this example (nor did I have a gender in mind). In my experience, however, more males do fit the Dunning-Kruger description than females (in science). That statement should not be interpreted to mean that I think only men (or most men) suffer from false confidence. I speculated that a female (with Imposter issues) in a workplace dominated by an "old boys network" would be in double trouble. My post ended with the statement that if such a woman instead worked in a supportive environment, she might be less susceptible to feeling like an imposter.

4) I never claimed special powers to diagnose psychological pathology based on gender. However, I do have a special perspective, having dealt with discrimination, sexual harassment, and other gender-based issues first-hand (both as a victim and as a mentor of victims).

5) Nothing in my post (or previous posts) was aggressive or disrespectful.

6) I've never stated or implied that my blog is for "women only" or that I'm uninterested in the opinion of male readers (this is a common misconception about women's support groups). However, I do write from the perspective of a female, and most of my readers are female (I'm guessing based on comments). Just because I offer an example of bad behavior by a male doesn't mean that I'm painting all men with that brush. It's because that was the experience that inspired the post.

Some readers may not agree with or like my particular perspective, and I may not always state my case as clearly as I might. Expressing one's full thoughts and feelings about a complex topic in a short essay is not easy, and there is always the danger that others will misinterpret your words (whether due to limitations of the writing and/or to the reader's misinterpretation).

If a reader disagrees with something I've said, I would hope they point out where our opinions diverge (in a rational manner)...instead of stomping off in a huff.