The pandemic amplified the imposter syndrome, especially for female students. How can we in academic leadership rebuild their confidence?
Here is the context: I am the dean of a business school in San Francisco. During the Spring term, I hosted 30 midday “coffee” chat with students via zoom. The only rule: we did not talk about current activities on campus. Instead, we discussed the future – their future. This was not a formal presentation from student to Dean; it was an opportunity for connection between humans.
Recently, only two students joined the call, one from Asia and one from South America. Both were women with substantial professional experience. With courage and honesty, they talked about confidence: their embarrassment of asking questions in class, their fear of looking up “obvious” ideas on Google because they were lost but afraid to ask questions of the professors. They were willing to ask the person next to them five questions about the topic under discussion but too ashamed to ask the sixth question so as not to be a bother. They did not even dare write these fundamental questions in their own notes because they worried that the person next to them would see their laptop screen and conclude that they’re stupid or unprepared.
This is not new news. Even in Silicon Valley where innovation purportedly prevails regardless of gender, and especially in academia where blind peer review supposedly allows equal opportunity, the prevalence of women feeling like imposters is dispiriting. (That’s too small a word, but I’m trying not to hyperbolize.) As an educator, a leader, and a member of our community, I heard these sentiments as a clarion call to redouble my efforts to bring all voices onto our campus. Only with full contribution can we expect that the best ideas will triumph.
The pandemic exacerbated the imposter syndrome because, for campuses like mine that were locked down for several months, it’s too easy to hide on zoom. If a student is not confident about a topic, she can refuse to raise her virtual hand or, even more extreme, turn her camera off. Even hybrid classrooms, with online and in-person students in same session, make it too easy to hide. The additional technology in a hybrid room can overwhelm even well-meaning teachers. Furthermore, the generalized anxiety and fear that accompanied the pandemic leeched into all other perceptions. In fact, I saw more tension in and between students in the second year of the pandemic than during the first year as the new waves of the virus reached new heights of infectiousness and as adrenaline gave way to fatigue.
Three actions have helped educators and administrators over the last two years empower students to overcome their own feelings of low self-esteem.
The first is the “cold call”. Armed with a randomized list of students, professors can systematically and predictably ask everyone to speak. This might be initially be a scary moment for students. One way to bring heart rates back to earth is to start the cold call with a question from their background. “Annika, before I ask you about the issues in the business case… here’s a question about your own experiences. Prior to class, I looked you up on LinkedIn and found that you worked at an automobile repair shop. What project was the most memorable?” This starts the students in a safe topic and humanizes the exchange. My next task as a professor is to affirm almost any even-halfway-decent response so that everyone in the room realizes that the cold call is not a pit of despair but instead an opportunity to shine. As a dean, I promote this approach with all professors across all topics.
The second way to empower quiet voices is to suggest that students form temporary “brain trusts” with like-minded peers during each class. The professor can even offer or mandate these connections behind the scenes. In class, I pose a question to the group, and then allow brain trusts a few minutes to arrive at an answer together. I then cold call one student with the explicit instruction that the student can ask other members of their brain trusts for some help. Pretty quickly, people in the class seek to partner with people who are prepared and curious, even if they are under-confident. Those who are unprepared or unduly overconfident about their potential contributions to the brain trust soon find themselves without good partners.
The third is to openly discuss the Imposter Syndrome, where even seasoned professionals are overwhelmed with the fear that they do not know enough. I confess to them that I have this suspicion about once a week. Students are mollified to hear that this fear has a name and has cut a wide swath through human civilization. Even more impactfully, I point the students to some recent research* by Professor Tewfik at MIT. She found that the imposter syndrome is a temporary feeling of low self-worth that people can eventually escape. More importantly, she found that people with this (typically unfounded) suspicion about themselves were actually more effective as communicators and teammates than people who did not have this “self-handicap” because they focused on other people instead of themselves. In other words, the people who think they are not valuable to their team are in fact more valuable.
This conclusion resonated with me not just as a dean and professor trying to mentor under-confident students but also as a professional trying to navigate uncharted territory during the pandemic. Perhaps my own under-confidence generated positive outcomes as I sought advice and support from people around me. (You see my own low confidence in the word “perhaps.”)
Over the next few months, I intend to write more articles like this for my students, fellow teachers, and fellow administrators based on my reflections, mistakes, and salvations after two years as a campus dean during the COVID pandemic. Let’s see where this goes…