Thursday, September 30, 2010

Raising the Bar

Does anyone else feel that the standards for achieving something -- a position, an award etc. -- change when you accomplish that thing? That is, something that is considered prestigious becomes less so if you achieve it?

From my correspondence and other experiences, I think this may be a common situation for women, and possibly also for minorities: that somehow, by achieving something, that something can't possibly be as significant or special as it used to be.

The question is: How much of this is self-inflicted impostor syndrome at work, and how much of it is a systematic redefining of what is prestigious? -- i.e., by those who really do think that a particular award no longer means what it used to when it was only given to (white) men.

Either answer is troubling, in part because impostor syndrome may stem from the second scenario.

I am going to have an extremely busy day today, although I can't prove it to you by posting my schedule online, but I'd be interested to read anecdotes and other examples of the Continually Raised Bar Effect, and will moderate comments when I can.

These stories can be something from your professional life, or from the rest of your life.

For example: I once went on an extremely strenuous hike, and told someone about it later. That someone (an older man) said "That's strange. I used to think that was a really difficult hike, but it must not be anymore."

Yeah.. right.. maybe they paved a gentle trail and put in escalators and lots of cushioned benches with lemonade stands at strategic places? Or maybe, despite my frail femaleness, I somehow managed to haul myself up and down that mountain anyway?

That's the kind of thing I mean. Does anyone have similar stories?

36 comments:

Becky said...

I've got lots of examples of a highly related effect. "They lowered the bar for you because you're a woman." I had other students (and a professor) tell me that was why I got into a prestigious grad school, why I got a National Merit Fellowship, and why I got a NDSEG Fellowship.

Apparently there's some grand conspiracy to get little ole me a PhD.

Anonymous said...

yes, many times over. A selection: once having achieved a degree in discipline X "yeah, but every one can do that; i just can't be bothered" (as if it is too trivial to spend time on), graduating in another degree Y in a different country Z, "but the education system in Z isn't good anyway, is it" (heard that several times), after receiving my a PhD "sure, but they're more lenient on the quality when it comes to theses by women" (as if a PhD by a women is just not really a real PhD like those theses of men). The hitherto 'prestigious sweater' at company C one received upon obtaining a certificate of the high-level vocational training, whose "value was diminished" by me wearing it to work and if I "could please not wear it to work anymore because it was devaluing the status of the sweater" that was an item for showing off their intelligent-maleness for having completed that particular level of training (women we not supposed to make it that far).

Athene Donald said...

Totally agree with you. Isn't this the Groucho Marx effect 'any club that will admit me as a member can't be worth joining'? But yes, I am aware as I have risen through the ranks I still feel something is wonderful until it is attained, when somehow it no longer seems so special. It is a curiously masochistic way to behave, but suspect there are cultural overtones for women. We are taught not to brag, and then it feels like things achieved can't be worth bragging about.

Jen said...

The fact that I earned a Ph.D. has led me to believe that a Ph.D. isn't as special as I once thought it was. I mean, if I can get one, so can anyone! (For what it's worth, I am a female first-generation college graduate, and have been battling imposter syndrome for a long time).

LMH said...

My husband won a very nice postdoctoral fellowship that is competitive. I was very happy when he won it, we went out to celebrate.

When I applied for the same postdoc in the next round and got it, I didn't think it was such a big deal. Husband was still happy, but we couldn't go out and celebrate because we were living in different states - my getting the postdoc solved our two body problem.

I know for a fact that this sort of thing happens all the time to me, but that in my case I find it to be mostly self-inflicted.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes, we can be equally offended by what is not said. I was an assistant professor, and earlier this year, I received an NSF grant. Not a CAREER grant, but an unsolicited, 3 year grant. In graduate school, I was mentored by people who believed that NSF funding is pretty much the most prestigious funding a prof can receive. When I became an assistant prof., I assumed my colleagues in my department would feel the same.

Now, I know at most universities, getting an NSF grant is pretty much expected of most profs. But, at my university, there were less than 5 active NSF awards when I received mine. Several were MRI grants or scholarships and not multi-year research awards. In my college, there was only one other person who had an NSF research grant. And, in my department, only one other faculty besides me (there were 7 of us total) had ever had an NSF research grant. He received it many years ago, and was a full prof. So, pretty much everyone was promoted, even to full prof., without having received NSF funding.

When I received notice of my award, with the exception of the dept. chair, no one else in my department even acknowledged that I had received NSF funding. No "congratulations," no, "this is great visibility for the department," just absolute silence. Shortly after receiving the award, I found out that my department decided that to revoke my ability to go up for tenure in the fall.

Needless to say, I don't work there anymore. Now, I will acknowledge that there is more to the story than just what I described. But, my point is, our self worth and personal/professional satisfaction shouldn't come from others. I used to think I wanted tenure. But, the one real goal I set for myself when I became an assistant prof. was to get NSF funding. Once I achieved that, the opinions of my (idiotic) departmental colleagues didn't matter anymore.

People who feel the need to marginalize the accomplishments of others only do so because they are insecure about their own performance. We should be proud and satisfied when we accomplish our goals, whether it's getting an NSF grant or finishing a tough hike, and we have to just ignore and rise above this type of obnoxious behavior. If for no other reason than to maintain our own sanity and healthy perspective on our life and career!

Anonymous said...

This happens to me all the time. Each time I win an award or funding if someone doesn't outright accuse me of getting it because I was female they start devaluing the award. However never fear the award devaluing is not permenant, it only takes a guy to win it next year and it's right on back to prestigious status.

Phillip Helbig said...

Groucho Marx quipped that he wouldn't want to belong to a club which would accept him as a member.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

When I started the process of applying to grad school, I was worried about the GREs. An ex-boyfriend who had recently gotten his Ph.D. told me that he was sure I'd do well, but couldn't resist adding that I wouldn't do as well as he did.

So I offered a wager.

And what happened when I blew him out of the water in all categories? He reneged on the bet with the excuse that "they made the tests easier since I took them."

I don't think that example has anything to do with either of your posited reasons. It's just one man's personal narcissism.

Anonymous said...

Yes absolutely!!! Tenure, promotion to full, awards, etc.

Anonymous said...

All I can tell you is that impostor syndrome is common among white men in academia also, at least younger ones. What you describe is not just (maybe not even primarily) a gender or ethnicity issue. The older generation always thinks the younger ones are dumber, didn't have to hike through the snow uphill both ways to school like they did, etc.

inBetween said...

I was sitting beside a nice man from an African country a few years back on an overseas flight. We struck up a conversation and he asked what I do. When I replied that I am a professor at the University of X at Y he said, "at the University of X at Y - that's a really excellent university. Are you sure that's where you work?"

inBetween said...

Oh, and I almost forgot. After being featured in Time Magazine someone actually said to me, "Yea, but no one reads Time anymore."

seriously. gotta love it.

Rufus said...

Impostor syndrome is insidious.

What's really insidious is that when trusted sources tell me I'm an imposter I don't believe them; I actually am an impostor. No, really.

The last time I felt truly deserving was when I got into every grad school I applied to.

Published work as grad student? Yeah, but not enough. Impostor. Good group? Yeah, but not my first choice. Impostor.

Good postdoc? Fantastic- NRC fellowship. Hugely badass advisor. But then again lots of NRCs got given that year, and I was an American...impostor. My proposal wasn't that original. Impostor.

PRL/Nature as postdoc? Yeah, but they weren't that great. Impostor.

Interviews? Yeah, but not that many. Impostor. Job at a top-notch place? Yeah, but the places that were *really* top-notch saw through me. Impostor.

Grants? Yeah, but I didn't deserve them; got lucky and was well-connected. Impostor.

WTF?

Klaas Wynne said...

Eh?!?! How the hell is this a problem that affects women only? I am a man (senior-ish MSP) but experience the exact same problem. Really, seriously, this has nothing to do with being a woman and everything to do with getting older and more cynical. No?

Math postdoc said...

I think there is another reason for this effect also, and it is a good reason. When I was an undergrad, I was very impressed by anyone who had a PhD and assumed that meant they know a lot. Now that I've gotten a PhD myself, and now that I've seen a lot of other people get PhDs, I'm not so easily impressed. Getting a PhD is difficult, but tenacity and hard work are more important than talent or knowledge or anything else, and plenty of people who have PhDs are just plain ignorant about their field (and in some cases even about their topic of research).

The point is that many factors go into any of these accomplishments -- including a lot of dumb luck! -- not to mention the 'cascade effect' where as you start to be successful and enter the right power circles of academia it's much easier to keep climbing. If you want to know if someone is really worth their salt you have to look past their CV. And I try to remember this when I'm evaluating myself too, and I try not to be too impressed by my professional accomplishments even if I'm very happy about them.

Anonymous said...

As a sophomore college student at Awesome Eastern University (Tho Not Ivy), I was helping move in the new cadre of Frosh to the dorms. Found out that one of the students was, like me, from Massachusetts, and his dad started chatting with me. When dad realized I had gotten into AEU after graduating from a lowly, semi-rural public high school, while his son had attended Fancy Pants Prep School, he seemed quite upset, like suddenly the AEU didn't seem so awesome anymore if they let someone like me in... Wonder if he saw all that prep school tuition just flush down the drain...

Janice said...

I have heard "Your article appeared in [insert name of specialist journal]? I guess they must not be so picky these days!"

*facepalm*

doctormama said...

Jen said
The fact that I earned a Ph.D. has led me to believe that a Ph.D. isn't as special as I once thought it was.

Yes this.

But honestly: it happens in all aspects of my life, not just my work life. Maybe the simple fact of doing it means that we're overcoming the mental gymnastics to get there.

Anonymous said...

This one just sticks w/me even many years later. I was working on a problem set in grad school with a female friend. A group of men came by, and they had solved one of the problems we were struggling with, so they helped us. Then we asked which problems they were struggling with, and we had solved one of them, so we offered to help them, but they said no .... it was definitely as in, "If the girls got that one, it must be easier than we thought."

Anonymous said...

This usually happens when people see me changing the tow hitch on my truck. (Since I am a small woman there is no way that it weighs as much as it actually does.)

Professionally, this does not occur too often. Sure, some undergrads think that getting a PhD in my math-based field must be really easy if *I* can do it, but these are generally the same guys that think they will be partners at Goldman by 30. Among people whose judgment actually matters to me, I haven't gotten too much of this... yet.

Anonymous said...

I just completed my first olympic distance triathlon and immediately became unimpressed with anyone, including myself, who simply completes such a race. I had friends who came to cheer me on, and they were honestly impressed, calling it an accomplishment, something they could never have done. I felt a little embarrassed for them because I felt like anyone could do it, and probably do it better than me--I had just finished in the middle of the pack. So yeah, I guess my perspective instantly skewed after the race. But next time I'm going to train more intensely. Perhaps this is what keeps me motivated.

Bagelsan said...

Hasn't this happened on a very wide scale in some fields? Biological sciences (and Ph.D.s in them) aren't all thaaat hard anymore, apparently; look at all the girls doing it! The bar for "difficult" sciences keeps scooting mysteriously away from the fields in which women are overtaking men...

And I get total impostor syndrome, slash modesty. "Oh, maintaining a >3.5 GPA isn't that hard! I mean, I did it" or "sure, the general GRE is super easy, how else would someone like me have aced it?"

Shakeel said...

One of my favorite quotes by Dag Hammarskjold: "Never measure the height of a mountain until you reach the top. Then you will see how low it was."

Most people I know interpret that quote to be something about the persistence and power of the human spirit.

The first time I read it, and still now, I took it to mean that anything in particular you accomplish is essentially worthless because if you could do it there was probably something harder and more worthwhile you could've been doing instead of wasting your time like a sucker.

FatBigot said...

Actually Kruger and Dunning do address this in their paper. Whilst most of the headlines are about incompetence, they discuss the high performers as well. These people are skilled enough to accurately critique their own work, and fail to see how it could be difficult for anyone else. Thus someone performing at 95th percentile will consider that they have made about the 70th percentile. They can see their own mistakes, but consider everyone else will have found the rest of the task as easy as they did. Thus imposter syndrome

Kruger, Justin; David Dunning (1999). "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. PMID 10626367. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.64.2655&rep=rep1&type=pdf.

Anonymous said...

I am the poster child for imposter syndrome. Any exam I do well on must not have been a hard exam - regardless of what the class average is. I was awarded a goldwater scholarship during undergrad, and I automatically concluded that because I got one it must have not been a competative year. I just started my first year in a PhD program at a university that is highly ranked in NIH funds and faculty productivity. I kid you not the second I graduate, I'll conclude that getting a PhD from this institution isn't a real accomplishment, either. On one hand, it sucks because I constantly feel people are on the brink of discovering that I am not actually very smart, but on the other hand, atleast no one can ever call me conceited.

Kea said...

How the hell is this a problem that affects women only? FFS, where do all these doods come from? OK, so I am in my 40s, and the following pretty well sums up what everyone told me along the way.

1975: "girls can't do math and science"
1980: "well, I guess science classes give you the chance to meet nice boys"
1985: "girls can't study science at university! Hah hah!"
1990: "well, you need to find a sensible job now"
1995: "you can't do a PhD on your own research!"
2000: "no one will listen to anything you say if you don't have a PhD"
2005: "well, we give out PhDs to anyone these days, but who would employ you?"
2007: "nobody will take you seriously until you publish a few (more) papers"
2009: "Oh, so Oxford gave you a postdoc (after we left you to rot in the gutter)? Well, they are forced to employ women these days ..."
2010: "you should quit your whining and appreciate what you've got!" (this was after I told them that I didn't have enough food to eat)

Does anyone see a pattern here?

Ace said...

I had very painful experiences with this when I was younger. I am petite and female. When I was younger, I was quite pretty and also quite striking and sometimes extravagant in my appearance - a few people have compared my look in college & early grad school to a more conventionally attractive Lady Gaga (she copied me!).

Everything I did was devalued. I am no longer young and pretty as before but still youngish. I don't dress so extravagant any more but I also refuse to be a wallflower. I learned to compensate for the devaluation of the "pretty girl" by a) very strong, possibly even stern demeanor, body language; b) by actually knowing that I need to be about 150% better than men in everything that I do to be considered about 75% as good..

When I got into college (in foreign country), it was "oh you're going there, it can't be that hard". I majored in math and finished with high honors - that meant the math department was losing its seriousness. I had a professor look me up and down and laugh for a whole minute in class after I asked a question bc he couldn't believe I would be able to ask a question about math "looking like that"... I was admitted with a full scholarship to a computer science MSc program after that and I was bullied day and night by my classmates. People told me I'd never graduate, I did not understand what I was getting into. I graduated first, with top GPA. This was seen as the program no longer being as rigorous. People made comments that I was getting my Msc because I was sleeping with professors. My thesis advisor did in fact sexually harass me, and did not give me recommendation letters for PhD applications because I refused his advances. I still managed to get accepted to about PhD programs in top schools (including Carnegie Mellon, which was revered as the top place you could go for your PhD at my MSc uni). At this point the criticism started to dissipate because I obviously was not sleeping with people, just sending applications, taking GREs and so on...

I started my PhD in the USA. I was not considered a good graduate student by my peers, but the professors were very supportive. There were always rumors about how my work was not mine. I had no ideas of my own, all was handed to me on a platter by either my advisor, or her senior male grad student, or my then boyfriend (PhD student at the time and we collaborated). Even after my advisor died & bf was an ex, I moved to another lab and continued succeeding, the rumors (and comments to my face) did not stop. I also noticed that similar comments were made about other grad students who published in good journals. It was all her supervisor's idea, she's just a slave with no intellectual input. Many times I heard this stuff about female students, not once about male students...

I ended up being productive and finding a satisfying career in research. Am now a (still young) professor in research university in the USA. I did get occasional disrespect or looking down on on my achievements as a postdoc and I still do. But nothing like the blatant and overt undermining of my intellectual pursuits like I did when I was young. Part of it was that I could shove my CV in someone's face and that would usually stop it. I also learned the icy glare...

I look back and am astonished that people would say these things to me. People (men and women) unashamedly thought if a girl with plantinum blonde and purple hair and a holographic miniskirt could do X, then X could not be hard; and moreover it was ok to disrespect her and her achievements...

Sorry I had not thought about all this in many years and may not be writing in the most clear way. I find it horrible that young women are discouraged so overtly about intellectual pursuits. I don't know if things are better today. I can only hope so...

Ace said...

...cont

I started my PhD in the USA. I was not considered a good graduate student by my peers, but the professors were very supportive. There were always rumors about how my work was not mine. I had no ideas of my own, all was handed to me on a platter by either my advisor, or her senior male grad student, or my then boyfriend (PhD student at the time and we collaborated). Even after my advisor died & bf was an ex, I moved to another lab and continued succeeding, the rumors (and comments to my face) did not stop. I also noticed that similar comments were made about other grad students who published in good journals. It was all her supervisor's idea, she's just a slave with no intellectual input. Many times I heard this stuff about female students, not once about male students...

I ended up being productive and finding a satisfying career in research. Am now a (still young) professor in research university in the USA. I did get occasional disrespect or looking down on on my achievements as a postdoc and I still do. But nothing like the blatant and overt undermining of my intellectual pursuits like I did when I was young. Part of it was that I could shove my CV in someone's face and that would usually stop it. I also learned the icy glare...

I look back and am astonished that people would say these things to me. People (men and women) unashamedly thought if a girl with plantinum blonde and purple hair and a holographic miniskirt could do X, then X could not be hard; and moreover it was ok to disrespect her and her achievements...

Sorry I had not thought about all this in many years and may not be writing in the most clear way. I find it horrible that young women are discouraged so overtly about intellectual pursuits. I don't know if things are better today. I can only hope so...

Kea said...

Many times I heard this stuff about female students, not once about male students ...

Yes, this is very noticeable as the years wear on! I don't often get people insulting me directly, because I think my glare is fairly threatening, but when one hears so many derogatory comments about other women, from people who don't even know them, one begins to suspect the same stories are circulating about you.

And then sometimes someone WILL tell you what the gossip is ... I have had to reassure good friends outside science, who were confused by the level of bad gossip, that I had NOT slept with so and so etc. And not once, in my entire lifetime, do I recall anyone telling me such stories about a male researcher, in a professional setting.

What are these people thinking when they say, "oh, but she doesn't have a mind of her own". Are they seriously trying to be friendly with me?

Anonymous said...

I'm a middle-aged white male who a few years ago got an endowed chair. In a sense I deserved it, but it was also true that there was just a rare match between what I had to offer and the Department's needs, so that I have an endowed chair and lots of smart unlucky people don't have them. I both think reasonably highly of what I have accomplished, and also know I've been lucky, and try to keep this in mind when I deal with other people. (It also helped that I'm sane, which doesn't help that much at the entry level because it's not that rare, but helps at the senior level because it is.)

lauren said...

I do this all the time without realizing it.

I've no doubt that men experience this too but it is more common with women, I believe, particularly as you climb up the career ladder.

Sometimes the comments are motivated by envy and general mean-spiritedness. After receiving a Fulbright grant, I got: "Oh, that's that grant that *anyone* can get," and "I can't *believe* you got a Fulbright grant to study *that.*" Both from colleagues, delivered with actual snorts.

Then there's the phenomenon that "one person's ceiling is another person's floor." Before I got an MA, I was deadly impressed by anyone in graduate school. Now I hesitate to comment on blogs about academia because I "only" have an MA.

Also, five years ago if someone had told me I would *complete* a novel, and it would be *published,* I would be jumping for joy. Now of course when I think of my first novel, I fret fret fret about certain elements of the plot, and its low sales, and maybe I should have made it into a radio play instead, and the overall emotion I feel is disappointment.

It also has to do with character. To many of us, having a goal is exhilarating. There's great drama in longing for something, striving for it. Once you possess it, sure there's a moment of triumph, but after that the excitement is gone. So we're always thinking: "Right. Where's the next hill to climb?"

Anonymous said...

I will never forget studying for the GREs with two other students, one male, one female (I'm also female). Of the three of us, the guy was obviously the worst prepared, and got far lower scores on the practice exams. In addition, while we were all doing undergraduate research, the guy had spent vastly less effort on his project, and it showed. In other words, of the three of us, he was clearly the worst-qualified candidate for graduate school.

After one study session, however, he found it ok to remark: "I wish I were a woman, then I wouldn't have any trouble getting into grad school." The nerve! As if the two women who were so obviously outperforming him were going to get accepted just on the strength of their double X-chromosome -- or expected to! As it turned out, all three of us got into good graduate programs, so his worries were apparently unfounded. But I found his implication (if I don't get into a good grad program, it's because of reverse discrimination) insulting and childish.

Anonymous said...

If it comes "too easy", I feel it's not as prestigious. Got CAREER on the first try -- it was the biggest relief in my life (as I was pregnant at the time with little other funding and _needed_ this to prove something to the department). But since it came on the first try, it doesn't seem that "prestigious".

I have been fighting the journals, however, for 3 years. FINALLY, got a paper into a decently reputable journal. I feel like telling everyone because after 3 years of blood, lots o' tears, and sweat... I got it and feel that it must be prestigious if it was that hard! (Though I know it's easy for some).

I already know all the males in my dept. say I get whatever because I'm a woman. *blah* But I am so discriminated against here (I almost have proof that a male colleague my level with the same credentials has gotten higher raises)... that I don't care what they say.

And then there's the imposter syndrome.......

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

"Now of course when I think of my first novel, I fret fret fret about certain elements of the plot, and its low sales, and maybe I should have made it into a radio play instead"

Nothing is stopping you from making it into a radio play, as well, if you think that would be a good format for the idea.

Anonymous said...

Or better yet, make your novel about a radio play and go on to win the Nobel Prize of Literature.