This comment, submitted to shychemist, perfectly sums up something called the stereotype effect. It often happens to anyone who is a minority in their field. Combined with imposter syndrome, it is a real impediment. Since I’ve been dealing with this for over 30 years as a woman engineering student and engineer, I decided to write up some background and hints that I’ve discovered that may help.
The stereotype effect applies when you feel pressured because of something about you (gender, race, nationality) and the area you are working in. ravens-domain describes it perfectly - you feel that you can’t do it, but that you have to uphold your entire gender. The XKCD comic describes it as well - you aren’t allowed to be your own person.
If you would like to know more about the stereotype effect, a great book is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele. It describes it well and talks about what institutions can do to reduce the effects, but it doesn’t give much advice to the person that’s dealing with it.
Another book that my daughter highly recommends is Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. (I have started it but haven’t finished it yet.)
The related imposter syndrome is the feeling that once you have achieved, that you don’t really deserve it and sooner or later they’ll figure it out and kick you out. Many successful women have this issue. I don’t know much about whether this applies to other minorities. Slate had a good article on this.
So, how can you cope with this? I’m not a psychologist, but I have dealt with this for a long time. Here are some things that have worked for me. If they seem like they would work for you, try it. If you have other ideas, please add them.
tl;dr: You do well because you earned it - you fail sometimes because you are human.
1. Know that stereotype effect and imposter syndrome are things and driving some of the thoughts you have. Just knowing it’s not just me is a huge relief.
2. Look up the people like you who have done this before. There actually are more of them than you think. For example, in computer science, read up on Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Realize that women invented a lot of computer science. It was actually considered a women’s field until there started to be money in it. The contributions of minorities are often left out of the standard histories, but now with the internet, you can find out a lot about them.
3. Find ways to trick your mind out of the spiral. One study I read (but don’t have handy) actually found that if women wrote the name of a women mathematician or scientist on the top of their test before they started, they got better scores. In scary situations, I often don’t go as myself. I go as an actress playing the part of the confident engineer who happens to have the same name I do. Even studying up on body language and using some of the confidence tricks like putting your finger tips together like a super villain actually works sometimes.
4. Find a buddy. Even one other person in the same situation can help so much. In my university, we’ve started having dinners once a month for women in STEM. It’s been a huge encouragement for all of us. My daughter says, “If you have one other person with you, you can stand against the entire world.” It may not be possible to find someone in your area, but with the internet now, it’s easier to connect than ever.
5. Talk to people in the majority as well. Often, we self-isolate ourselves. Then, we think that we are the only one struggling. In grad school, we had a really difficult class on modeling contaminant transport in surface water. I worked so hard on that class and got an A-. I was sure that I was a failure and probably shouldn’t be in n the program. The next semester, I was talking to one of the men in the program. He had talked to everyone and it turned out, I had the highest grade in the class. But I thought I had to do everything on my own and I had no idea.
6. Find a mentor. Be careful about this one. There are the “I suffered so everyone should” types that you should avoid. But if you can find someone who has been through it, they can really help you figure out what you should worry about and what you should let go.
7. Stay focused on YOUR goals. Part of the downside of stereotype effect is that you feel that if you don’t finish you are “letting everyone down.” That’s bullshit. Stereotype threat is a feeling - but you shouldn’t let it run your life. If you love engineering, or chemistry, or whatever, don’t let the naysayers stop you. On the other hand, if you start it and realize this is not for you, people will say “but if you quit, you’ll be letting the rest of us down.” Don’t buy into that. You don’t owe us a life in a profession that doesn’t fit you. It’s a careful balancing act - everyone has bad days and you don’t want to quit because of a bad day or a flunked test. So be sure to spend time figuring out what you want and need.
8. Most important: You do well because you earned it - you fail sometimes because you are human. That’s it. The stereotype effect is a real feeling but it doesn’t reflect reality. You are an individual. The rest is bullshit that your culture and your brain are conspiring together to feed you. Don’t buy it. (I know, easier said than done, but keep trying.)
This turned out really long, but I hope it’s helpful. My ask box is open. There are some really cool things on Tumblr like scientific-women and shychemist's blog that can be really supportive.
So, go for it! You can totally do it!