Overcoming the Fraud Syndrome

Jul 24, 2018

“We say, 'I didn’t really deserve that'.”

Ellen Gritz, PhD, has been a powerful force in revolutionizing public health as an established leader in cancer prevention and research and an internationally known investigator in behaviors related to smoking.

In a long and meaningful career, she climbed the ladder of success to become the Olla S. Stribling Distinguished Chair for Cancer Research at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. In 2008, she received the Alma Dea Morani Renaissance Woman Award, presented to a thought leader in medicine or science by the Foundation for the History of Women in Medicine, now the Women in Medicine Legacy Foundation (WIMLF).

By any measure, she’s the real deal. Yet when she mentors other women in health care, she alerts them to the Fraud Syndrome. Dr. Gritz discusses feelings of fraud and feminism in an oral history compiled by WIMLF and available at The Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard.

“It’s a term I encountered probably during the ELAM program, the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine, that wonderful year-long Drexel University-sponsored program for women in academic medicine,” she says. “And it’s something that probably many of us women have experienced—that when we get an honor, when we’re elected to a position, or when we have a position of high responsibility, we demean ourselves and undervalue ourselves, and we say ‘Oh, I didn’t really deserve that, I feel guilty that I got it because there was someone far more qualified…’ And then you talk to some friends, and they’ve all experienced it.”

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Gritz believes the Fraud Syndrome originates in a woman’s upbringing.

“We were taught to be the secondary persons in every situation, where we were expected not to be leaders. Where we were expected to be the comfort people in other people’s lives, the spouses, the sisters, the daughters, the whatever, the secretaries,” she says. “And so when you finally, by dint of your accomplishments and expertise, and qualifications, receive a wonderful honor or a promotion, it’s sometimes accompanied by this, in a sense, subconscious, subliminal welling up of emotions from past experience.”

Dr. Gritz was raised to be a traditional woman. “I wore heels and nylons to college every day. I did not challenge the status quo.” The feminist movement both fascinated and freed her.

“It was a whole new world to me...I eagerly read Germaine Greer, and the literature of the period, the novels. I mean, I learned things about sexuality that I’d never known, and never even thought about. And about gender relationships, and ways that men had dominated social relationships.”

Becoming conscious of the Fraud Syndrome helps people better address it, she says.

Feminism also helps to counteract feelings of fraud.

“I respect feminism greatly for the kind of awareness it’s brought us, the changes it’s brought us, the equality,” she says. “That’s still an ongoing struggle in many realms. But I think it’s really important.”


This story is taken from the oral history of Dr. Ellen Gritz. The full oral history is available here as part of the Foundation’s exhibit at the The Countway Library of Medicine, through our partnership with the The Archives for Women in Medicine.