The Realities Of Imposter Syndrome For Women In STEM

24.02.21

The topic of Imposter Syndrome is nothing new for The Twenties Club, and it’s certainly not a foreign concept for the legions of women trying to navigate careers in traditionally male-dominated fields like STEM. Nazaria Swortzel is a 24 year-old Kiwi living and working in Central London for a major pathology laboratory, “We have contracts with multiple NHS trusts, thousands of GPs and major pharmacies like Superdrug and Boots.”

Nazaria’s role as a Laboratory System Specialist means she’s in charge of processing results that need to be “as automated as possible”; disciplines like sexual health, blood sciences and, more recently, COVID-19 testing. Nazaria’s job is to assist in the automation behind these disciplines, as well as improve the workflow in various labs, including highly-specialised disciplines like parasitology, oncogenomics and haemoglobinopathology (don’t worry, I had to Google those words too).

If it wasn’t already abundantly clear, Nazaria is incredibly impressive, and yet she’s spent most of her career feeling undeserving of praise and opportunities. She even went as far as to tell me she thinks it’s been “sheer luck”.

But as you’re about to discover, that couldn’t be further from the truth.


Did you always want to work in STEM, even though many people see these areas as largely populated by men?

Yes, I’ve always wanted to work in STEM, but where in STEM was the question! My main objective was to find a job that allowed me to help others, while being intellectually stimulating – I think that’s pretty standard for most people.

I studied biomedical science at Victoria University in Wellington and it wasn’t until I started working in LIMS (Lab Information Management Systems) and, more specifically, my current role, that I realized how few women there are and in particular how few women my age. Since graduating, I’ve worked for the Ministry for Primary Industries as a Laboratory Workflow Administrator and my position now as a Laboratory System Specialist. On both occasions, I was in absolute shock when I found out I got the job and genuinely put it down to my employer not having better options or just sheer luck. 

Okay, you just said, “On both occasions, I was in absolute shock when I found out I got the job and genuinely put it down to my employer not having better options or just sheer luck.” This feels to me like a pretty clear example of Imposter Syndrome in action; when clearly you are incredibly talented and clever. Do you recognize that?

Thank you so much! I actually never recognized these thought patterns were Imposter Syndrome until I listened to a podcast on the subject; before then I didn’t know there was a word for it! I think my Imposter Syndrome stems from being raised in a family where academic achievements are very important – not that this is a bad thing, in fact I’m very grateful for it, but I also think it led to a sense of perfectionism in both my studies and my career. I always want to have the answers and I want the work I do to be of the highest quality possible, which means I always think it could be better and therefore think it’s currently never as good as it could be.

 

Within your current job, how does your work environment reinforce your experience with Imposter Syndrome? And do you feel like STEM is behind compared to other industries when it comes to equal representation of men and women? 

In an industry where most of my co-workers are men, I feel like I’m not expected to be there. For example, a big part of my job involves meeting engineers onsite from various companies to either install new analysers, update them or troubleshoot them. Every engineer I have met has been a man in his 40s or 50s and it is immediately clear that they were not expecting me to be their IT resource. 

Pre-COVID, before we started enabling these tasks to be as remote as possible, I vividly remember an incident where I was explaining to two male engineers why their networking wasn’t working and what needed to be done in order to fix it. They refused to believe me, so I had to retrieve my male manager and ask him to explain the exact same thing to them. Suddenly, everything magically clicked for those two men. I’ve routinely dealt with engineers not believing I’ve done the leg work before they arrive, or speaking to me in a way that makes it clear they don’t expect me to be helpful or know what I’m doing. Initially this made me doubt myself and my abilities, but I’ve since made peace with the fact that I’m going to have to spend at least ten minutes convincing most people that I know what I’m doing.

In one of our earlier conversations, you told me that the pandemic has intensified your experience with these internal challenges. Why do you think this is?

During the pandemic, I did quite a bit of work automating the analysis of COVID results for a direct Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) method with the guidance of our lead molecular virologists. This then became the basis of our NHS COVID surge lab which went live late last year. This lab has the capacity to do 10,000 COVID tests a day, on top of what we are already doing. My brilliant manager developed a new software for the lab so it is incredibly audited, automated and leaves very little room for human error. It’s truly incredible and I’m seriously grateful to have been a part of the project, but during this experience I’ve received praise from people that I hugely look up too within my company and it always makes me uncomfortable. In fact, it tends to make me more anxious that I might not be as good as they think I am, or that I’m bound to “slip up”, and so the cycle of pressure I put on myself continues. On top of that, the workload in the lab during the pandemic was unprecedented so this cycle was happening much more frequently than it had been before. I try hard to not let this lead to burnout but at times it’s inevitable. Recently, working from home has made me feel guilty about simply doing a normal 8am-5pm work day and having a lunch break. The idea itself seems heinous: How could I possibly not work overtime every day?! I’m right here in my house with my computer; not doing unpaid overtime is simply not good enough. I don’t know if this is Imposter Syndrome or just being in the early stages of my career but I’m hoping as I get older I can learn to set proper boundaries.

Wait, let’s pause there – do you feel that working 8-5 each day isn’t long enough?

Oh it’s absolutely not long enough. Even when I was in the office, leaving on time was difficult and now that WFH is so normal I tend to work all day, make dinner, do some more work, and then one final check of my emails before bed. The current two-months-and-counting UK lockdown doesn’t really help this either. Working in STEM, especially when it’s healthcare driven, means there is always more work to be done. There are always new diagnostic tests to interface, new analysers to improve the speed and accuracy of patient results, better technology to deliver those results, new scripts to develop that can alleviate data entry tasks from the lab staff, new clinical trials and research studies to build. Although my job is almost entirely Lab IT-based, I always bear in mind that there is a patient that will be impacted by my work and because of that there is always work to be done. 

And lastly, who are some of your female heroes in STEM?

There are almost too many to name! Every woman I work with in the lab is a hero to me, especially those in managerial positions. Women in the lab have usually had to work their way up, rather than walk, into these higher level positions so they have a much deeper understanding of the lab; from the people in specimen reception to the scientists analysing the results.

Every woman that advocates for equal representation in STEM, women that empower young girls to be passionate about STEM and truly embrace it as a career option are my heroes. I’m also lucky to have some incredible scientists close to me in my life; my friend Yasmin who is currently working on a drug that is being trialled for brain cancer as a part of her PhD, and my friend Bex who works for a biotech start-up while doing her Masters, while also being a Les Mills instructor (Sorry, WHAT!).

The more women who are present in STEM, the less time we will need to spend explaining to people that we have just as much right to be there and maybe, in the long run, this will lead to less self-doubt.