Tuesday, April 26, 2011
A Perfect Storm
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.