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As the representation of women in university faculties increases, we have increasing chances to engage in the leadership of academic institutions. Leadership positions include intermediate positions of Center Directors, Department Heads, Deans, Vice Presidents, and Provosts as well as top executive positions of President, Rector, or Chancellor. Institutional policies and important decisions regarding hiring, promotion, and allocation of resources are made or at least strongly influenced by those in leadership positions.

Women remain severely underrepresented in university leadership world-wide (see figure, data source [1]). This will only change if we are willing to accept the challenges of top leadership and also to engage in leadership at the intermediate levels that are typical stepping stones toward top positions.

I have described my own experience as Director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) in a 2019 paper [2]. In reflecting on my more than fifteen years of experience in this position and on my upcoming retirement at the end of this year, I propose eight questions regarding academic leadership. These questions are mainly directed to women who are considering whether to move into positions of academic leadership but may also be useful to women who are already in such positions.

Question 1. What do you want to accomplish in your leadership position? There can be many motivations for seeking positions of responsibility and authority. A leader’s goals can also evolve during tenure in a leadership position. We need to understand our goals to be able to assess whether we are satisfied with our progress, to evaluate whether we need to change our strategy or approach, and to decide how long to continue in a specific leadership position. We also need to consider how well our goals align with those of the institution we will be leading, since lack of alignment can lead to opposition.

Question 2. What constraints will you have to deal with? Are you likely to face opposition in achieving your goals or as a woman in a leadership position? Where would opposition originate? Would it be exercised through official or unofficial channels? To what extent will you be able to use your resources to overcome constraints?

Question 3. What resources will you have at your disposal? Will your resources allow you to achieve your goals and influence others in your organization? If not, can you acquire (or negotiate for) additional resources? Negotiating for additional resources is more effective while you are being recruited rather than after you have accepted a position. It is always better to have clarity and written confirmation of promised resources.

Question 4. What trade-offs will you make to accommodate your new responsibilities? Leadership positions come with new responsibilities and demands for time and energy. Very few of us have excess capacity, which means that we would need to adjust our current allocation of time and energy to accommodate new demands. How will these changes affect us and others who depend on us professionally or personally? Do we have personal and professional support systems in place to enable our leadership activities? Professional coaching or leadership training can help us to address these issues for ourselves and in our professional and personal circles.

Question 5. Who will you be able to depend on for advice and support? All leaders need friends and allies – these are not the same thing. Friends care about our interests and good friends (inside and outside the organization) will tell us what we need to hear, even when we may not want to hear it. Allies, especially those within the power structure of the institution, serve to advance mutual interests. Identify and cultivate your allies as early as possible so that you can call on them when you need to promote change or counter opposition.

Question 6. What are the leverage points for change in your organization? All organizations must have the capacity to change, if only in response to new opportunities or external constraints. At the same time, all organizations are resistant to change. Common levers for change are recruiting new people to the organization and providing incentives for current staff to pursue new directions. We need to understand how these levers operate within our own organization and how we can work with allies to promote change.

Question 7. How is information shared in your organization? There are always both formal and informal channels for information flow within an organization. Informal channels are often selective and can work to disadvantage particular groups or individuals. Formal channels can be based either on ‘push’ (where information is actively disseminated) or ‘pull’ (where information is available but must be sought out). It is impossible to overstate how quickly information (or its availability) is forgotten or how often it must be repeated to have its intended effect.

Question 8. What are the formal and informal power structures in your organization? While formal power structures are displayed in organizational charts, informal power structures are harder to identify. Informal power often arises from personal relationships or access to resources (including information) outside of formal channels. Underestimating or ignoring informal power structures can have unpleasant consequences.

These eight questions may seem somewhat daunting. I do not mean them to distract from the many satisfactions and rewards that come with leadership. Rather, I hope that they will help women to navigate leadership challenges. I have written this specifically for women not only because of our underrepresentation in leadership position. We also face particular challenges because our exercising of authority and agency violates stereotypical expectations for women, which triggers hostility and criticism [3]. With preparation and the support of friends and allies, however, we can be successful and help to shape our academic institutions for the future [4]. Courage!


1. Mayo, N. (2019) "One in six universities worldwide led by a woman" Times Higher Education, Data source: International Association of Universities’ World Higher Education Database.

2. Hering, J. G. (2019) “Women as Leaders in Academic Institutions: Personal Experience and Narrative Literature Review”, Pure and Applied Chemistry, 91(2): 331–338,

3. Sieghart, M. A. (2022) The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it. Penguin, London, 384 pp.

4. Hering, J. G., Green, S. A., Heckmann, L., Katehi, L. P.B., Maurice, P. A. & Young, S. (2022). A call for an alliance between female academic leaders and early career researchers to improve the academic STEM system. Elephant in the Lab.

Thanks to Prof. Sarah Green (Michigan Technological University) and Prof. Emer. Patricia Maurice (Notre Dame) for their helpful comments.

Prof. Janet G. Hering (@JanetGHering)

Director, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science & Technology (Eawag)

Learning about academic mental health

Over the past year I have been volunteering with Dragonfly Mental Health, an organisation working to improve mental health in academia through research, education and community building. Much like 500 Women Scientists, their goal is to change the culture within academia to produce a healthier, more stable environment where all kinds of people can flourish.

As an ambassador for Dragonfly I have been learning about the mental health issues most commonly affecting academics. Recently I had the chance to speak with the team developing Dragonfly’s workshop on impostor syndrome. This discussion made me rethink issues like self confidence, self doubt and the sense of belonging, which are often topics we discuss when talking about problems to do with gender imbalance in STEM and the leaky pipeline.

Please remember that this is a blog about my learning experience, not medical advice, a scientific article or the official view of Dragonfly Mental Health. If you also find this topic interesting you can reach out to us on twitter @DragonflyMH or by email (

What is(n’t) Impostor Syndrome?

Most of us have probably heard of impostor syndrome during our careers: the phenomenon of successful, high achieving people (often women) who are unable to appreciate or believe their own success. [2] describes it as:

Impostor Syndrome Describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor.

This can include:

  • Feeling that a grade, degree, publication, job or honour wasn’t really deserved

  • Feeling that most or all colleagues are more knowledgeable and competent than oneself

  • Feeling shame over struggling or lacking knowledge and experience

  • A fear of being discovered as a fraud and losing one's work, reputation and security.

Researcher Pauline Rose Clance has developed an Impostor Phenomenon questionnaire [1] to help people assess whether and to what extent they may have impostor feelings. Participants rate on a scale of 1 (not at all true) to 5 (very true) how much they agree with statements about recognising achievements and fitting into their workplace, such as

  • I have often succeeded on a test or task even though I was afraid that I would not do well before I undertook the task.

  • It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.

  • I’m afraid people important to me may find out that I’m not as capable as they think I am.

  • I avoid evaluations if possible and have a dread of others evaluating me.

By learning more about what Impostor Syndrome is, I also learned what it is not:

  • It is not a syndrome! It is not a medically recognised psychological condition. For this reason and others which I will outline below, many people do not use the common name “Impostor Syndrome” but rather “Impostor Phenomenon” or “Impostor Experience”. I will use both of these names in the rest of this post.

  • It is not the same as humility! Understanding that nobody is perfect and recognising our own gaps in knowledge and experience is generally a good thing. Feeling scared or overwhelmed about our perceived deficiencies and being unable to recognise our strengths is a different experience.

  • It should not be Business As Usual! It’s time for all of us to recognise the impact that the Impostor Phenomenon can have on someone’s life and career, and take it seriously.

Image courtesy: Pinterest

Do we all suffer from it? How can we not?

One thing that makes impostor experience tricky to talk about is that a lot of the symptoms are severe versions of feelings that most people experience. This leads to the idea that impostor experience is the same as humility or uncertainty, and even the idea that there’s something strange about the people who don’t identify with it (I don’t support this line of thinking, as I want to believe that there is a happy medium between distress and overconfidence!). So how many of us do have it? Is it normal?

According to [2], due to different screening tools and cutoffs for assessment used, impostor experience is found to affect between 9% and 82% of the population. One study [3] found that it affected between 22% and 60% of physicians in training, one of the more commonly studied groups when it comes to Impostor Experience. Even with this lack of precise data, there are a few things we know:

  • It is common across all genders, ages and career stages.

  • It often co-occurs with depression, anxiety and burnout.

  • There are no published studies evaluating treatment of Impostor Experience as a standalone issue independent of a mood disorder.

This last point may seem bleak: is there no way out of the impostor experience? Luckily there are tools at our disposal, including:

  • Learning to recognise and accept impostor feelings

  • Not comparing our successes with those of others

  • Replacing the mindset of perfectionism with one of sufficiency

  • Actively practising self acceptance and kindness

  • Treating any underlying depression, anxiety or burnout, which may include…

  • Psychotherapy.

Impostor experience and marginalisation

Something that might stand out about the list of treatments above is that they are all centered around the individual and focus inwards. But can an individual approach to the Impostor Phenomenon be sufficient, when many of the feelings described in the Clance test, such as

  • I sometimes think I obtained my present position or gained my present success because I happened to be in the right place at the right time or knew the right people.

  • It’s hard for me to accept compliments or praise about my intelligence or accomplishments.

  • At times, I feel my success has been due to some kind of luck.

  • I’m disappointed at times in my present accomplishments and think I should have accomplished much more.

Could also be caused by the way we are treated in our workplace?

We came up with several examples of how academics might be quite explicitly told that they are not as competent as their colleagues or have not earned their position. This is often a consequence of systemic discrimination (such as racism, sexism or classism) in STEM and broader culture, and a belief that only certain kinds of people are suited to research work.

  • A misunderstanding of hiring policies and quotas has led to the idea of the “diversity hire”. Many marginalised academics have been told (wrongly!) that they didn’t really earn their position but got it because their institute needed a woman, person of colour or disabled person on their staff.

  • Many academics who are parents are told that they are less committed and hard-working than non-parents if they need to take parental leave or adjust their timetable to meet the needs of their family. Some parents (especially mothers) are also made to feel that they do not belong in academia because they should be putting *more* of their time and energy into child-rearing, not research. Either way, parents are being told that they do not fit in and cannot really perform at the same level as childless colleagues.

  • More generally, anyone who cannot or doesn't want to devote their entire being to their work can be made to feel that they don’t take academia seriously enough and therefore don’t deserve their place in it.

  • Students and researchers from non-academic family backgrounds often fall victim to the “hidden curriculum” of social norms, language and knowledge which are useful in navigating academia but are not explicitly taught or discussed. This can mean that they feel less intelligent or lacking in subject knowledge when they are really lacking in very specific social knowledge.

We concluded that cultural change has to be part of the discussion around Impostor Experience, and we encourage everyone to help by:

  • Talking openly about self doubt with colleagues and students.

  • Challenging perfectionism and unnecessary competitive behaviour in ourselves and others.

  • Raising awareness of, and challenging, discrimination including microaggressions.

  • Helping to eliminate the hidden curriculum by sharing resources and knowledge and respecting different language, cultural and class backgrounds.

I know of course that 500 Women Scientists are already engaged in this work! If you want to join me in learning more about impostor experience and other mental health issues in academia, get in touch with Dragonfly on social media or by email.

References & Resources

Provided by Dragonfly

1. Clance IP scale

2. Bravata et al 2020

3. Gottlieb et al 2020

Dr. Lucia Rotheray (@LRotheray)

Mathematician, Content Contributor

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