Feeling like you don’t belong. Feeling like you’re not good enough. Feeling like you don’t deserve the job or the promotion. Feeling like you’re an imposter. Feeling like people will eventually find out. If any of this sounds remotely familiar, you might be suffering from imposter syndrome.
First discovered in a 1978 study by two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, imposter syndrome reflects a feeling of inadequacy in academia or the workplace despite “outstanding academic and professional accomplishments.” While the term only first emerged in the 1970s, imposter syndrome existed long before, and it’s safe to assume that women and minorities have always felt it.
Imposter syndrome can manifest itself in various ways. Most commonly, this is reflected by self-doubt: feeling like a fraud, despite having the experience, the job, the praise, and the recognition. As Jessica Bennet puts it in a New York Times article, “You can’t seem to shake the feeling that it’s all smoke and mirrors, that you must have tricked everyone, and that at any moment you’ll be discovered.” Even if they have “made it,” women tend to still be afraid of making mistakes and constantly doubt their qualifications for the job, despite abundant evidence of their success.
Often, it is the brightest women in the workplace who tend to devalue their worth by undermining their experience or expertise. Women who suffer from imposter syndrome feel like they’re not qualified enough and like they constantly need to prove themselves. Sometimes, they don’t even think they deserve to be paid as much or at all for their work.
This was the case of Maureen Zappala, a former propulsion engineer who worked at NASA for 13 years in the 1980s and 1990s. According to a 2020 BBC article by Sheryl Nance-Nash, Maureen suffered from self-doubt and believed that NASA only hired her at the time because they needed women. She felt underqualified, worked long hours to prove herself, and didn’t ask anybody for help. Even after being promoted, she kept second-guessing herself.
So why is it that women, especially women of colour, are still more affected by imposter syndrome than men?
While many personal factors explain why some women lack confidence and are more prone to suffer from imposter syndrome than men (high pressure, personal expectations, perfectionism, social media), most of it comes from patriarchal society. Women didn’t have the same rights as men up until relatively recently in the Western world, and they were set aside and told not to have opinions for a long time. Girls are still raised and expected to be "perfect" today.
Later in their careers, women are told not to be too confident or ambitious and are taught to fear success; whether consciously or unconsciously. On the one hand, they want to achieve great things, but on the other, the overarching fear can be paralysing. As a result, high-achieving women tend to work longer to prove themselves and avoid asking questions, speaking up, or asking for challenging jobs because of their negative self-view. They also tend to be more prone to stress, anxiety, and burnout.
According to a 2023 Independent article by Oliver Lewis, women are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome than men. And let’s not even talk about other minority groups or anyone who has the pressure of accomplishing “firsts,” like being the first in the family to complete a higher education or achieve a position of authority at work.
This is not just the result of an education focused on traditional and outdated gender roles; it’s also the result of systemic bias. Many women are still not paid the same wages as men, despite having all the necessary qualifications, if not more. There is still a significant gap between men and women in similar positions, despite the fact that most people believe that they are paid equally.
75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in the workplace, according to a 2023 Forbes article by Luciana Paulise. In their work, women tend to judge their performance as worse than it is, while men tend to judge their own as better. This could come from the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where people with limited knowledge or competence in a specific domain overestimate their knowledge or competence in that domain. Men tend to overestimate their capabilities, while women tend to underestimate them, according to a 2014 Atlantic article by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman.
Imposter syndrome at the workplace could also result from a lack of role models and physical representation at work. If you don’t have people who look like you or share your background in a position of power, it can make you think that you don’t belong or that you will never be good enough. This is only accentuated by sexist comments such as “women are too emotional” implying women can’t be good leaders, or gendered bias that women take time off work to have children, and won’t be able to catch up. This goes with not having a supportive team in the workplace. In the 21st century, women shouldn’t have to choose between a career and a family.
Coloured women have it even harder and often experience both sexist and racist comments, which in turn only increases imposter syndrome. Coloured women can experience discrimination with inappropriate workplace comments on their natural hair, for example. Often, they are told their natural hair makes them look “unprofessional” and are expected to fit the Western white woman standard. Even Michelle Obama said the U.S. wasn’t ready for her hair during her time at the White House. In a recent interview to promote her new book, “The Light We Carr,” she appeared with her natural hair and said that for years, she straightened her hair because she was too worried that she might not be seen as “professional.” The former first lady also openly talked about her struggles with imposter syndrome, despite being one of the most powerful and influential women of the 21st century.
While there are a lot of articles saying that imposter syndrome isn’t real, it is definitely real. Being an imposter isn’t an illusion, but a result of “systemic bias and exclusion,” according to a 2021 Harvard Business Review article by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey. Imposter syndrome became a universal feeling, especially for women. And it became easier to label a feeling rather than acknowledge where it came from.
Luckily, things are changing, but white men are still likely to have their intelligence and work validated over time, rarely question their competence or leadership style, and can find role models like them, unlike women and other minorities.
Even today, imposter syndrome places the blame on individuals rather than addressing systemic bias and racism. Instead of women finding ways to deal with their “imposter syndrome,” the workplace should create a healthy work environment where diversity of “racial, ethnic, and gender identities” is considered professional.
Call it imposter syndrome, call it something else; recognizing it is the first step to changing workplace and societal bias. Only by acknowledging this uncomfortable feeling can things change.