Impostor Syndrome, Bias, and Doubt: Overcoming Barriers to Honoring All Entomologists
By Rob Morrison, Ph.D.
As awareness of disparities in who gets awards has increased in entomology, coming face-to-face with a wall of our Society’s highest awards composed of mostly white and all men recipients has become increasingly frustrating. This especially seems unconscionable in the era of “Me, Too.” All one has to do is look out on the myriad faces every year at the ESA Annual Meeting to understand our Society, by STEM standards, is fairly diverse: roughly half women and men, still more white than it should be based on background demographics in the United States, but with definite and fairly substantial representation by other groups. Not always “visible” but still substantial is the contingent of LGBTQ-identified members in the Society. As a result, especially to early career professionals such as myself, it is disheartening to see that the people that are most prominently displayed as honorees of the Society do not represent the full diversity of our members and all the great work that we know is happening.
How Can This Be?
Despite specific and sustained efforts by ESA, including convening a Fellows Task Force and Awards Task Force to address this and related issues in past years, the Fellows wall has intransigently remained male and white by a large margin, including an all-male slate in 2019. In large part, this pattern is based on existing biases in who is nominated by peers. In other words, judging panels can only act on the candidates who are nominated for the award, and if there is poor representation in who is nominated, then there is little a judging panel can do at that point to correct it. A large uproar on social media resulted in response to the ESA Fellows slate in 2019, and, while it is easy to express outrage at this, it will take specific and sustained steps by ESA and its members to improve the diversity of representation by those who win these awards. The good news is that we don’t have to wait for glacial generational change—there are things we can do right now. Learn more below, and submit a nomination for an ESA Award this spring—the deadline for nominations for the first wave of 2020 awards is March 16.
What Can You Do?
1. Don’t underestimate your own accomplishments or sense of worth, especially if you identify with an underrepresented group.
Research has shown that underrepresented groups systematically undervalue their own accomplishments relative to a privileged group in society due in part to internalization of bias. Just in my admittedly short career so far, I have seen this play out over and over again. For example, in 2017 I worked with the then-chair of ESA’s Early Career Professionals Committee to nominate Carol Anelli, Ph.D., professor of entomology at Ohio State University, for the ESA Founders’ Memorial Award. Her talk was to honor Anna Comstock, which would be the first time in ESA’s history that a woman would honor another woman for this prestigious lecture that ranks near the top of the awards hierarchy in ESA. When I asked Dr. Anelli after the fact about her experience, she said, “I do recall that my reaction—after the immediate thought I had that the [Early Career Professional Committee] would be expending a lot of their precious time, to no avail—was the empathy I felt for the ECP members, who, as enthusiastic, energetic entomologists, would have to learn through the ‘school of hard knocks’ that one doesn’t nominate someone [with] my non-typical career and expect a successful outcome.”
Of course, as ECPs, we were thrilled to learn that Dr. Anelli ended up being chosen for the honor, but she later said, “No one was more surprised than I was when I received the phone call from then-President Weller.” Dr. Anelli is an expert on Anna Comstock and other historical figures in entomology with many accomplishments in her own right, and, even after coming so far along in her career, she somehow felt that she fell short of the mark required for this award.
This is a great reminder that you lose nothing by nominating yourself or others for an award, and, as I tell my own students, you always miss the opportunities you decide not to pursue.
2. If in a privileged position, nominate your students or staff for awards.
This is especially relevant if you are a principal investigator (PI) of a lab, chair of a department, or research scientist in government; if you have a supervisory role in industry; or if you are in any other position of power in the research enterprise. If you, as a supervisor and the person most familiar with your colleagues’ work, won’t nominate your deserving students or employees for awards, who is going to do it?
As both a government researcher and a lab PI, I am always personally on the lookout for applicable awards and opportunities for my students and staff, and I will unabashedly put them forward for awards. Last year, I nominated Marco Ponce, a Ph.D. student in my lab at Kansas State University, for the ESA Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section’s Distinguished Undergraduate Achievement Award in Entomology, which he won. When I later asked him whether he thought he would win the award after I suggested nominating him—and whether he would’ve asked me to nominate him independently of my prompting—he said, “No, I did not think I was going to get it. … [And], no, I doubt myself in many things. … The impostor syndrome constantly haunts me.”
In fact, I make nominating my students and staff a habit, and over this past year my students received 11 awards for which I nominated them at either their local institution or ESA. So, I ask, why should it always fall on the most vulnerable and least knowledgeable in the research enterprise to defend their interests? Awards have the power to encourage and motivate those early in their career and help build their CVs so they will be qualified for their next career steps. For those holding positions of power in research, there are correspondingly greater responsibilities to those we are training.
3. It is perfectly customary and acceptable to ask someone else to nominate you or to nominate yourself for an award.
However, advisors may be busy and may not be aware of the schedule for awards and who is eligible for what; thus, it is perfectly fine to ask a close colleague or advisor to nominate you for an award if you feel uncomfortable nominating yourself.
I have also been on several judging panels in which folks who have nominated themselves for the award have been successful. Lauren Diepenbrock, Ph.D., assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida, has had experience with this. As to why she chose to self-nominate, she said, “I read the award information and realized that I was eligible, and nobody was going to nominate me without me asking them, which is awkward, so I went for it—who knows what I’ve done better than myself?”
She ended up self-nominating for both a student award and an Early Career Professional Award, and she won both. “I think that it is completely normal to be self-conscious about self-nominating,” Dr. Diepenbrock said. “Most scientists are trained to be humble, so it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around a self-nomination, because it feels like bragging. But, really, if you did good work, it’s not really bragging … something I’ve come to realize and would never have said when I nominated myself. You have to be your biggest supporter. If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?”
Besides, you can leave the “bragging” to your letters of reference. In sharing advice for future award winners, Dr. Diepenbrock recommended to “talk to previous recipients—most of us will share advice and often our packets—to help ease fears of the expectations of what needs to go into the application/nomination. And, think of this more as an application. … I think that helps it feel more accessible. Also, if you [don’t] receive an award, at least you tried!”
4. If you are uncomfortable coordinating the nominating process for a peer or advisor you think is deserving, refer the name to a contact on the newly formed ESA Committee on Canvassing for Awards and Honors.
Recently, ESA formed a new Committee on Canvassing for Awards and Honors to solicit nominations for awards to ensure that judging committees can base their decisions on the full range of our diverse members. If you know of a deserving mentor, student, advisor, colleague, or collaborator who should be nominated for one of ESA’s awards but don’t feel like you are in a position to make the nomination, please send an email with details to me or to the two co-chairs of the committee (information below). Help us lift up all entomologists!
Indeed, it will take the sustained effort of both those with privilege in the research enterprise and those who are underrepresented themselves, as well as collectively organized efforts by the Society, to overcome entrenched biases that lead to disparity in the recognition of accomplishments within our diverse profession. It won’t be easy, but most things worth doing are rarely so.
Entomological Society of America
Rob Morrison, Ph.D., is a Research Entomologist at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service, Center for Grain and Animal Health Research, in the Stored Product Insects and Engineering Research Unit, in Manhattan, Kansas. Web: www.ars.usda.gov/pa/cgahr/spieru/morrison. Twitter: @morrisonlabUSDA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Co-chairs of the ESA Committee on Canvassing for Awards and Honors are Elizabeth Beckemeyer, Ph.D., and Susan Weller, Ph.D. Reach them at email@example.com.