This article outlines what imposter syndrome is, how it affects women, and what can be done in the workplace and wider society to tackle it. Yomi Adegoke, a journalist who writes about race, feminism, class, and politics, argues ‘Imposter syndrome is a response to a world that doesn’t believe in women’ [1].

What is imposter syndrome? 

Imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 by clinical psychologists Clance and Imes. They believe that individuals with imposter syndrome questioned the validity of their achievements, felt as though they were a fraud and that they were unworthy of recognition. [2] 

Who does it affect and how? 

Imposter Syndrome can affect anyone; however, it disproportionately affects women and minority groups. Groups who often lack sufficient role models of success.  In a survey conducted by HR News, in which over 3000 adults in the UK took part, it was found that over two-thirds of women (66%) have experienced imposter syndrome, in comparison to over half of men (56%) within the last 12 months. [3]  

The widespread nature of imposter syndrome has an adverse effect on the diversity of those progressing into senior roles or starting their own businesses. The Telegraph reported a key ‘link between imposter syndrome and a lack of funding for female-led firms…research found that 44% of women said imposter syndrome has held them back from applying for funding’. [4] 

Furthermore, the doubt and stress from imposter syndrome can hinder career progression. Lack of confidence or perfectionism could impact the ability to manage or complete work. Additionally, individuals may not seek promotions or other work opportunities due to fear of being exposed as a fraud. 

Why does imposter syndrome affect a higher percentage of women, specifically women of colour? 

The BBC article answering ‘Why imposter syndrome hits women and women of colour harder’ quotes Thema Bryant-Davis, a black psychologist and professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in California. Davis explains that the lack of role models for marginalised groups conveys a message that they don’t belong in these workplaces. There is no ‘signal of the possibility of advancement’ or example of how they might manage ‘the realities of stereotype, stigma, and oppression, in order to advance’. [5] 

The article continues, arguing that ‘the lack of physical representation is just one of the factors that feed into imposter syndrome’. Davis highlights that everyday sexism and racism, supporting racist and sexist stereotypes, can increase self-doubt for marginalised communities. [5] 

Emily Hu, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, says: 

“If you’ve grown up with messages that you’re only valued for your looks and your body, not your skills or intelligence, you may end up getting a certain job or position and wondering whether you truly deserve it” [5]. 

bbc.com. 2020. Why imposter syndrome hits women and women of colour harder. 

How can we tackle imposter syndrome? 

Often, you will see articles on ‘how to overcome imposter syndrome’. This discourse increasingly places imposter syndrome as an individual’s internal problem that must be ‘fixed’ by the affected person taking an inward look. Dr. Jagsi and Dr. Mullangu, both Harvard Medical school graduates, argue: 

‘Imposter syndrome might be viewed less as a personal challenge affecting a few than a systemic problem…with real, detrimental consequences to those affected.’ [6] 

Jasigi, R., Mullangi, S. 2019. Imposter Syndrome: Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom.  

Women are not born believing they are not worthy; it is a result of what society teaches them. In understanding imposter syndrome, challenging learned behaviours, Adegoke explores why women are born believing they are not worthy: 

‘Imposter syndrome is the logical outcome of a world that was never designed for women to be successful. It is time we stopped seeing the problem as being women’s refusal to believe in themselves and rather a world that actively refuses to believe in women.’ [1]

Adegoke, Y. 2019. Impostor syndrome is a response to a world that doesn’t believe in women.

Jagsi and Mullangi go on to note that many studies show women are often penalised for exercising power at work, whereas when men do the same it has a strong, positive effect. Their research ‘demonstrated that women tend to minimise their ambitions and salary expectations in mixed-gender environments to boost relationship prospects’. Summarising, ‘these learned behaviours ultimately contribute to a self-perpetuating cycle: by softening their edges, women may not be recognised for their competence and therefore not be promoted.’[6] 

We discussed this further with Katherine Graham, Managing Director CMP Resolutions, who argues that ultimately the apologetic nature of women stems from the fact that society teaches women they’re not deserving [7]. 

“We feel like an imposter and so we’re apologising from the very beginning for even being there. 

There is a responsibility that women hold when they’re a minority. They might be the only woman on a particular management group for example. Women who are in a minority in a senior position, are often also very aware of that and aware that how they behave and that how they achieve as a leader is being watched by other women in their organisation. So, they feel that they’re holding the responsibility not just for what they say and do but for the messages that are giving the wider organisation about women in senior positions. 

The focus that women put on relationships has a final downside which is they feel responsible for the relationship that they have with women and the way in which they represent women. Women are carrying this enormous burden, they have to navigate themselves through their leadership challenges, but they have to also be mindful of the wider impression they are giving.” 

Katherine Graham, managing director CMP Resolutions

Jagsi and Mullangi conclude that ‘cultural change needs to be paired with concrete commitment to mitigate the root causes of imposter syndrome’ [6]. Caroline Colliston, DWF partner, Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Group member, argues that this cultural change must begin at school, re-educating children from a young age: “I think what we do need to do is to remove the labels for women who are strong as being bossy, bossy little girls, boys are never described as bossy, they are quite often described as leaders. We need to make sure that both sexes are brought up with an element of fairness and an understanding that there is no single rule for one gender.” [8]

As Jagsi and Mullangi said: ‘Imposter syndrome is but a symptom; inequity is the disease’ [6]. 

Sources:

[1] Adegoke, Y. 2019. Impostor syndrome is a response to a world that doesn’t believe in women. [online] [Accessed 05/03/21]. 

[2] Clance, P., and Imes, S. 1978. The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. 

[3] HR NEWS. 2019. Over 6 in 10 Women Suffer Imposter Syndrome in the UK. [online] [Accessed 05/03/21]. 

[4] Burn-Callander, R. 2019. Imposter syndrome: women’s silent career killer. [online] [Accessed 05/03/21]. 

[5] bbc.com. 2020. Why imposter syndrome hits women and women of colour harder. [online] [Accessed 05/03/21]. 

[6] Jasigi, R., Mullangi, S. 2019. Imposter Syndrome: Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom.  

[7] MGC Interview with Katherine Graham, Managing Director, CMP Resolutions, 18/09/20

[8] MGC Interview with Caroline Colliston, DWF partner, 18/09/20

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This article outlines what imposter syndrome is, how it affects women, and what can be done in the workplace and wider society to tackle it.

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