Experiences With Imposter Syndrome and Authenticity at Research-Intensive Schools of Social Work

A Case Study on Black Female Faculty





Authenticity, hyper/invisibility, inclusion, imposter syndrome, social work faculty


TThere is little known about the experiences of Black women in schools of social work, specifically those situated within research-intensive (R-1) Carnegie-designated institutions. Experiences of imposter syndrome and authenticity often result in negative experiences and poor professional outcomes for Black women in academia. This study explores Black women social work faculty members’ sense of self through the prisms of imposter syndrome and authenticity. Social work is of particular interest in that it espouses a code of ethics and core values of service that if applied to the cultures within these schools, Black women may have more equitable experiences. This article presents qualitative findings from nine in-depth interviews with Black women faculty members at R-1 universities. Findings revealed that Black women faculty member’s experiences of imposter syndrome impacted many facets of their professional experiences from moments of paralysis to potentially unhealthy over-productivity. Findings also highlight Black women faculty members’ concerns around their colleagues’ professional and personal perceptions of them and this often prevented these women from presenting their authentic selves in academic settings. Despite these barriers, some women chose to remain authentic regardless of possible backlash in refusing to assimilate into the dominant White culture. Black women scholars cannot survive and thrive in social work education unless institutions build trust with these women by respecting their diverse backgrounds, race-related research interests, and range of methodology.


Abdelaal, G. (2020). Coping with imposter syndrome in academia and research. Biochemist, 42(3), 62-64. https://doi.org/10.1042/BIO20200033

Abdul-Raheem J. (2016). Faculty diversity and tenure in higher education. Journal of Cultural Diversity, 23(2), 53-56. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27439231/

Allen, W., Epps, E., & Guillory, E. (2000). The Black academic: Faculty status among African Americans in U.S. higher education. The Journal of Negro Education, 69, 112-127. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2696268

Allen, J. L., Huggins-Hoyt, K. Y., Holosko, M. J., & Briggs, H. E. (2018). African American social work faculty: Overcoming existing barriers and achieving research productivity. Research on Social Work Practice, 28(3), 309-319. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049731517701578

Bradley, C. (2005). The career experiences of African American women faculty: Implications for counselor education programs. College Student Journal, 39(3), 518-527. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-10358-012

Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77-101. https://doi.org/10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Breen, R. (2006). A practical guide to focus-group research. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 30(3), 463-475. https://doi.org/10.1080/03098260600927575

Brown, C., II., & Dancy, T., II. (2010). Predominantly White institutions. In K. Lomotey (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African American education (pp. 524-526). Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412971966.n193

Carbado, D., Crenshaw, K., Mays, V., & Tomlinson, B. (2013). Intersectionality mapping the movements of theory. DuBois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 10(2), 303-312. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1742058x13000349

Carnegie Classification of Institutions. (2021). Basic classification description. https://carnegieclassifications.iu.edu/classification_descriptions/basic.php

Clance, P., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241-247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006

Collins, P. H. (1991). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Rutledge.

Collins, P. H. (2002). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of Empowerment (2nd ed.). Rutledge.

Comer, E., Medina, C., Negroni, L., & Thomas, R. (2017). Women faculty of color in a predominantly White institution: A natural support group. Social Work With Groups, 40(1-2), 148-155. https://doi.org/10.1080/01609513.2015.1077641

Council of Social Work Education. (2017). 2016 statistics on social work education in the United States. https://www.cswe.org/CMSPages/GetFile.aspx?guid=6e8bc9e7-ebd6-4288-bc7a-d2d427d68480

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1, 139-167. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299. https://doi.org/10.2307/1229039

Croom, N., & Patton, L. (2011/2012). The miner’s canary: A critical race perspective on the representation of Black women full professors. Negro Educational Review 62/63(1–4), 13-39, 265-266.

Dade, K., Tartakov, C., Hargrave, C., & Leigh, P. (2015). Assessing the impact of racism on Black faculty in White academe: A collective case study of African American female faculty. Western Journal of Black Studies, 39(2), 134-146. https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1127&context=edu_pubs

Donovan, R. (2011). Tough or tender: (Dis)similarities in White college students’ perceptions of Black and White women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(3), 458-468. https://doi.org/10.1177/0361684311406874

Dunn, A. (2019). Younger, college-educated Black Americans are most likely to feel need to ‘code-switch’. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/24/younger-college-educated-black-americans-are-most-likely-to-feel-need-to-code-switch/

Edwards J., Clark, T., & Bryant, S. (2012). African American female faculty in predominantly White graduate schools of social work. Journal of Teaching in Social Work 32, 90-107. https://doi.org/10.1080/08841233.2012.639683

Fries-Britt, S., Rowan-Kenyon, H., Perna, L., Milem, J., & Howard, D. (2011). Underrepresentation in the academy and the institutional climate for faculty diversity. The Journal of the Professoriate, 5(1), 1-34. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264003593_Underrepresentation_in_the_Academy_and_the_Institutional_Climate_for_Faculty_Diversity

Grant, C., & Ghee, S. (2015). Mentoring 101: Advancing African American women faculty and doctoral student success in predominantly White institutions. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 28(7), 759-785. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2015.1036951

hooks, B. (1981). Ain’t I woman: Black women and feminism. South End Press.

Howard-Baptiste, S., & Harris, J. (2014). Teaching then and now: Black female scholars and the mission to move beyond borders. Negro Educational Review, 65(1-4), 5-22. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1054133

Howard-Hamilton, M. (2003). Theoretical frameworks for African American women. New Directions for Student Services, 104, 19-27. https://doi.org/10.1002/ss.104

Hudson, K., Shapiro, V., Ebiner, I., Berenberg, A., & Bacher, N. (2017). Preparing tomorrow’s professoriate: An examination of social just language in social work Ph.D. program manuals. Social Work Education, 36(4), 443-455. https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2017.1297395

Jaysiiree, J., Pierce, D., Ortiz, L., Hills, D., & Sowbei, L. (2011). Access to intersectionality, content to competence: Deconstructing social work education diversity standards. Journal of Social Work Education, 47(2), 283-301. https://doi.org/10.5175/jswe.2011.200900118

Jones, T., Wilder, J., & Osborne-Lampkin, L. (2013). Employing a Black feminist approach to doctoral advising: Preparing Black women for the professoriate. The Journal of Negro Education, 82(3), 326-338. https://doi.org/10.7709/jnegroeducation.82.3.0326

Kelly, B., Gayles, J., & Williams, C. (2017). Recruitment without retention: A critical case of Black faculty unrest. The Journal of Negro Education, 86(3), 305-317. https://doi.org/10.7709/jnegroeducation.86.3.0305

King, N. (2004). Using templates in the thematic analysis of text. In C. Cassell & G. Symon (Eds.), Essential guide to qualitative methods in organizational research (pp. 257-270). Sage. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446280119.n21

Lee, L. J., & Leonard, C. A. (2001). Violence in predominantly White institutions of higher education: Tenure and victim blaming. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 4(2/3), 167-186. https://doi.org/10.1300/j137v04n02_09

Leonard, D. (2014, March 17). Imposter syndrome: Academic identity under siege? The Conversation. https://drdavidjleonard.com/2014/03/07/impostor-syndrome-academic-identity-under-siege-the-conversation-blogs-the-chronicle-of-higher-education/

Lloyd-Jones, B. (2014). African American women in the professoriate: Addressing social exclusion and scholarly marginalization through mentoring. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 22(4), 269-283. https://doi.org/10.1080/13611267.2014.945737

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press.

Marbley, A. (2007). Finding my voice: An African American female professor at a predominantly White university. Advancing Women in Leadership, 22, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.18738/awl.v22i0.257

McGee, E., & Kazembe, L. (2015). Entertainers or education researchers? The challenges associated with presenting while Black. Race Ethnicity and Education, 19, 96-120. https://doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2015.1069263

Nash, J. (2011). Practicing love: Black feminist, love-politics, and post-intersectionality. Meridians, 11(2), 1-24. https://doi.org/10.2979/meridians.11.2.1

National Association of Social Workers [NASW]. (2017). Revised code of ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English

NASW. (2021). Highlighted revisions to the Code of Ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Highlighted-Revisions-to-the-Code-of-Ethics

Padgett, D. (2008). Qualitative methods in social work research. Sage.

Parsons, E., Bulls, D., Freeman, T., & Atwater, M. (2018). General experiences + race + racism = Work lives of Black faculty in postsecondary science education. Cultural Studies of Science Education 13, 371-394. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-016-9774-0

Pewewardy, N. (2007). Challenging White privilege: Critical discourse for social work education. CSWE Press.

Pittman, C. (2012). Racial microaggressions: The narratives of African American faculty at a predominantly White university. The Journal of Negro Education, 8(1), 82-92. https://doi.org/10.7709/jnegroeducation.81.1.0082

Roberts, D. (2014). Complicating the triangle of race, class and state: The insights of Black feminists. Ethnic and Radical Studies, 37(10), 1776-1782. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2014.931988

Saldana, J. (2015). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (3rd ed.). Sage.

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Sage.

Stolp, S., & Smith, S. (1995). Transforming school culture: Stories, symbols, values and the leader’s role. ERIC Publications. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED386783.pdf

U.S. Department of Education [US DOE]. (2019). National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS): Degrees and other formal awards conferred [Table]. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d19/tables/dt19_324.20.asp

U.S. News and World Report. (2019). Best schools of social work. https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-health-schools/social-work-rankings

Vakalahi, H., & Starks, S. (2010). The complexities of becoming visible: Reflecting on the stories of women of color as social work educators. Affilia, 25(2), 110-122. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886109910364343

Vasquez Heilig, J., Flores, I., Souza, A., Barry, J., & Barcelo Monroy, S. (2019). Considering the ethnoracial and gender diversity of faculty in US college and university intellectual communities. Hispanic Journal of Law and Policy, 2(1), 1-31. https://stcl.edu/Journals/HispanicLaw/2019/2019Heilig1-31.pdf

Yin, R. K. (2012). Applications of case study research. Sage.