In 2016, I met an outstanding woman who said something that impacted me to this day.
She told me: “I still come into work every day thinking that someone is going to finally realize that I have no idea what I am doing”. The woman was Daniela Bortoletto, the head of the Particle Physics department at Oxford University. I’m not kidding.
I met Professor Bortoletto at the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWIP), through a speed-meet event with women working in different roles across the field.
What Professor Bortoletto shared was a sentiment that I had felt every day since starting my degree, and it shocked me that a woman with an amazing career (which includes being on the team that discovered the Higgs Boson, being a fellow at the Institute of Physics, and heading one of the most famous particle physics departments in the world) experienced the same thing.
Imposter syndrome is the psychological phenomena where an individual doubts his or her own accomplishments or qualifications, and thus has a persistent feeling of not belonging or fear of being exposed as a fraud. Most people have experienced this at some point in their lives, however, women (and particularly women in academic sciences) are disproportionately affected by this. Because of imposter syndrome, a well-established scientist might attribute her success to luck or chance, instead of her own skill or effort. It’s also what prevents a young woman from taking the step to pursue a subject like Physics in higher education despite a track record and experience that shows that she would be well suited to it.
My imposter syndrome developed from not being able to see myself as a physicist. My fellow students, my teachers, and even the famous physicists I have come across in the past were mostly Caucasian European men who seemed like they were born to do nothing but solve equations and debate about Bayesian statistics. This subtly formed the idea of what the “right kind” of person to be a physicist is, and I looked nothing like it.
It was through having open conversations (like the one I had with Professor Bortoletto), and conscious efforts by the scientific community to support and promote the work of physicists from a diverse range of backgrounds, that I begin to strip away this image of the “ideal” physicist that I had. Not only did the idea of a physicist become more fluid, but as I became aware of amazing Malaysian women in Physics like Mazlan Othman and Hafizah Noor, I was able to picture myself in the industry. I realised that the same traits that I thought made me unsuitable, actually made me the perfect person for the future of science: someone who not only conducts technical work, but could also communicate results and collaborate with people in technology, art, and government to bring science to the world outside academia.
While there are still horror stories of gender discrimination in the field, universities in general are a liberal space where many policies are in place to prevent discrimination against gender, sexuality, and race. If you plan on studying in the UK, the government and awarding bodies are fighting to combat the gender imbalance with awards and dedicated interest groups (women in science) for support and awareness, and most universities have a zero tolerance for discrimination.
While the infrastructural resources to combat institutionalised sexism in science still has leaps and bounds to go, I believe that the battle starts at the personal level – eliminating our personal unconscious biases. It starts with you.