This season of my life has been particularly challenging; not only was getting my manuscript out of the way difficult, but also establishing myself as a researcher has been frightening. Part of my problem is feeling like a fake and as if I don’t really belong.
As I mentioned in SAYAS profile, I took time to be a homemaker for a few years before deciding to embark on my doctorate and I felt that I was re-entering the field on the back foot. To be honest, the processing of getting a supervisor who believed in my project was gruelling, as most people I approached were put off by the fact that there was such a large gap in my resumé. The look on the faces of several illustrious professors when they found out that I was actually a stay-at-home parent was indescribably disheartening. Many a time I was ready to give up. My lowest moment came when I was outright rejected by my intended supervisor without him even asking about my proposed project or even reading a single thing I wrote. I eventually found someone who was willing to take me on but that was just the first part of the several hurdles I would have to face — the largest being my own insecurity.
Gill Corkindale describes the imposter syndrome as being “as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”. I think her definition is pretty accurate but doesn’t capture something that is making academia a particularly unfriendly environment – the academy as a whole does not easily accommodate outsiders. And women are still the primary outsiders. I say this because I realised over the years that as a woman, you are constantly trying to prove your intelligence in male-dominated fields, and in a millisecond, the value of your contribution can be diminished by a senior male colleague making careless statements such as “the doors would fly open because there are few women in the field” or “we need a female to meet our gender requirement”. Such remarks lessen the value of your contribution and creates the impression that the only reason that you are there is because you happen to be a woman and not because you are capable. Moreover, if you are not careful, such insidious remarks bury themselves deep in your psyche and you begin to doubt your ability.
I believe the academy at times frowns on outliers. Even though universities are the supposed homes to critical thinkers, I have personally seen higher education institutions repeatedly shoving people into epistemic and behavioural boxes. It is only when you have a truly progressive dean or head of department, that you are able to explore your research and self-presentation from non-traditional angles. Without such overt support, your self-esteem will be further eroded: at the best of times it’s difficult to think in a new way, and critical thinking needs nurturing.
I recently had to present my paper to a room full of academics and policy practitioners and I spent days hoping that I would fall sick so that someone else read my paper. Luckily, I came across TED talk on YouTube by Professor Amy Cuddy titled “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”. She basically argued that how you carry yourself affects not only how you feel about yourself but also your ultimate performance. In the remaining 48 hours before the talk I decided to put some of her suggestions into practice, I worked on some of the power poses that she suggests and I must admit that I felt very authoritative (but still a tad nervous) when the day came. I was confident on the podium, and for the first time in a long while I felt as if I belonged. And I started to see a change in myself.
I know it will be a while before my new-found confidence will become truly part of me. But right now I’m walking the walk, and it’s really boosting my self-esteem. Call me an optimist but I do believe that there will be a future in academia where women will not have to pretend confidence in the face of constant micro-aggression and bias. Change starts with refusing to suffer in silence.