The term impostor syndrome is broadly defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Many even question whether they are deserving of any accolades at all.
Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept, originally termed "impostor phenomenon," in a 1978 study focusing on high-achieving women. They posited that "despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the impostor phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise." Their findings spurred decades of initiatives to address impostor syndrome in women. Even famous women — such as Hollywood superstars Charlize Theron and Viola Davis, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, former first lady Michelle Obama and US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — have confessed to experiencing impostor syndrome. A Google search yields more than 5 million results and shows solutions ranging from attending conferences to reading books and reciting your accomplishments in front of a mirror.
What is less explored is why impostor syndrome exists in the first place, and what role our current workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it in women. We think there's room to question whether impostor syndrome is the real reason why women may be inclined to distrust their success.
The impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia and other biases was categorically absent when the concept of impostor syndrome was first developed. Many groups, namely women of colour and people of various income levels, genders and professional backgrounds, were excluded from the original study. Today's concept of impostor syndrome places the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that determine how the syndrome manifests in both women of colour and white women. Impostor syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work, instead of fixing the places where women work.
Feeling unsure shouldn't make you an impostor
Impostor syndrome took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologised it, especially for women. As white men move forward professionally, their feelings of doubt usually abate as their work and intelligence are validated over time. They're able to find role models who are like them, and others rarely (if ever) question their competence, contributions or leadership style. Women have the opposite experience as they advance in their careers.
Impostor syndrome is a heavy load to bear. The word "impostor" brings a tinge of criminal fraudulence to the feeling of simply being unsure or anxious about joining a new team or learning a new skill. In addition, the medical undertone of the term "syndrome" recalls 19th-century diagnoses of "female hysteria." Although feelings of uncertainty are an expected and normal part of professional life, women who experience them are deemed to suffer from impostor syndrome. Daily battles with racist and sexist microaggressions can keep even ambitious and resilient women from reaching their full potential at work.
Bias and exclusion exacerbate feelings of doubt
For women of colour, self-doubt and the feeling that they don't belong in corporate workplaces can be even more pronounced. The intersection of race and gender often places these women in precarious positions at work. Across the world, many are implicitly, if not explicitly, told that they don't belong in white- and male-dominated workplaces. Half of the women of colour surveyed by Working Mother Media plan to leave their jobs in the next two years, citing feelings of marginalisation or disillusionment. These findings are consistent with our own work experiences: Exclusion that exacerbated self-doubt was a key reason for each of our own transitions from corporate workplaces to entrepreneurship.
"Who is deemed 'professional' is an assessment process that's culturally biased and skewed," said Tina Opie, an associate professor at Babson College, in an interview last year. When employees from marginalised backgrounds try to hold themselves up to a standard that no one like them has met (and that they're often not expected to be able to meet), the pressure to excel can become too much to bear. This dynamic can manifest in different ways, depending on the employee: The once-energetic Latina woman suddenly becomes quiet in meetings; the transgender woman who always spoke up doesn't anymore because her manager keeps making gender-insensitive remarks; the Black woman whose questions once helped create better products for her organization no longer feels safe offering feedback after being told that she's not a team player. For women of colour, universal feelings of doubt can be magnified by chronic battles with systemic bias and racism.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Women feel like they don't belong because they were never supposed to belong. Women's presence and advancement in the workplace are a result of decades of grassroots activism and begrudgingly developed legislation. Academic institutions and corporations are still mired in the cultural inertia of good ol' boys' clubs and white supremacy. Biased practices across institutions routinely stymie the ability of individuals from underrepresented groups to truly thrive.
The answer to overcoming impostor syndrome is not to fix individuals, but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles. In this new environment, diverse racial, ethnic and gender identities should be viewed as just as professional as the current model, which Opie describes as usually "Eurocentric, masculine and heteronormative."
Confidence doesn't equal competence
We often falsely equate the type of confidence demonstrated by white male leaders with competence and leadership. Employees who can't, or won't, conform to male-biased social styles are told that they have impostor syndrome.
The same systems that reward confidence in male leaders, punish white women for lacking confidence, women of colour for showing too much of it and all women for demonstrating confidence in ways that are deemed unacceptable. These biases stem from narrow definitions of acceptable behavior drawn from white male leadership models.
Fixing bias, not women
Rather than focus on fixing their own impostor syndrome, professionals whose identities have been marginalised and discriminated against must experience a larger cultural shift. Leaders must create a culture for women and people of color that addresses systemic bias and racism. Only by doing so can we help women avoid the experiences that culminate in impostor syndrome — or at the very least, help them channel their healthy self-doubt into positive motivation.
Perhaps then, we can finally stop misdiagnosing women as having "impostor syndrome."
Written by: Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey
© 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group