Imposter syndrome still an issue among women

Professor Helen Kelly Holmes discusses the issues facing female academics and how the gap is slowly being bridged. 

Helen Kelly Holmes, professor of applied languages and director of the Centre for Applied Language Studies at University of Limerick talks to ThinkBusiness about the importance of introducing policies in the workplace that will “accept and promote the fact that ‘real life’ is compatible with a career” and the “impostor syndrome” that many young females still experience when applying for a job or promotion.

What has changed for women in academia since you started your career?

When I did my PhD in the UK, there were only male professors in our department, and all of the senior managers in the university were male. That has changed significantly and there are a lot more female professors and females in senior roles. There was also the idea that if you wanted to get to the top and become a professor or a leader that this was somehow not compatible with other goals such as family life. Again, this has changed – I hope.

What challenges have you personally faced as a female professor?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I got – or maybe was given – the message that maternity leave was a bit of pain for colleagues and so I did a double teaching load in the semester before I went on maternity leave. This meant that they didn’t have to hire anyone and that there was minimum disruption for everyone, except me. I certainly wouldn’t do this now and would never allow this to happen to a female colleague. We have a returning academic carer’s grant scheme in UL, and it would have been great to have this in place when I returned from maternity leave. My own experience was that I focused on the teaching and management roles and inevitably research got neglected because it was not as urgent. However, research is what will progress your career. So, the possibility of six months’ research leave before recommencing teaching and management duties would have been really beneficial.

“There is also, I think, an unconscious bias in the sense that people inevitably gravitate to people like them.”

Have you experienced gender bias in academic hiring?

I haven’t seen explicit gender bias, but what you do see when you are involved in a lot of appointment boards and hiring competitions is the result of socialisation. Males would put themselves forward for posts and for promotions even if they only fulfilled a few of the criteria, so more males would apply; females don’t tend to do that and I think that the ‘imposter syndrome’ is still alive and well among a lot of younger females. The females that I have mentored always focus on the gaps and shortcomings in their CV rather than on the positives – although this is changing. There is also, I think, an unconscious bias in the sense that people inevitably gravitate to people like them and this makes it harder to imagine someone that you are interviewing who is very different to you (in a range of ways, gender being just one) being able to fulfil a particular role and work with you.

What is holding back female academics?

Again, this is changing, but a lot of institutions just pretend that real life doesn’t happen: people don’t have children, people don’t get sick, people don’t have to look after elderly parents. Women do a lot of this work and I think they often get defeated by the fact that they have to hide this or work twice as hard to make up for this. Something like a child’s illness or the birth of a new baby will impact much more on a female than a male academic in my experience. We need policies that accept and promote the fact that ‘real life’ is compatible not just with work but also with a career. This needs a cultural change, but this is happening. The cost of and responsibility for childcare is also something that holds women back as well as a lot of judgment about how much time they are spending working and travelling – which is essential for an academic career. I really like Sheryl Sandberg’s idea of reframing the cost of childcare as in investment in future earning potential.

“We need policies that accept and promote the fact that ‘real life’ is compatible not just with work but also with a career.”

How important are positive and strong role models for women?

I think they are really important, but only if they disrupt and challenge the status quo. I used to think that the way to be a good role model was to be like a man, but I have realized over the years that this just reinforces all of the problems with our institutional and corporate cultures.

Interview by Irene Psychari.