If this title hooked you in, then you’re probably familiar with feelings of inadequacy - that voice in your head telling you that you’re a fraud and that you don’t deserve any of your success.
I’d also guess that you’re female, because we seem to experience these feelings more often than men. So much so, in fact, that when the term “Imposter Syndrome” was first coined back in the 1970s, it was in a study that focused on high-achieving women.
Even famous and mega-successful women, including Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg, and Viola Davis have confessed to experiencing Imposter Syndrome.
Of course, men have feelings of insecurity too, which we’re not trying to erase. But right now we’re talking about women and how the data show that we’re disproportionately affected … because, well, patriarchy… right?
Why are women more likely to encounter imposter syndrome?
Why do we automatically anticipate rejection and preempt it by minimising our valid needs and requests? The confidence and self-assuredness that is so strong in little girls seems to be slowly sucked out over the years - until we’re in a place where we question our achievements at every turn we take.
In short: women are taken less seriously than men. Our expertise and opinions are seen as “less than”, our views are challenged, and we’re ignored in favour of the men in the room.
It’s hardly surprising if we stop believing in ourselves as a result. How can we take ourselves seriously if the people in power will not?
Our inner voice echoes what we heard growing up
I personally have such vivid memories of being chastised and put down in a variety of ways;
You’re too quiet, you’re too loud.
You’re too sensitive, you’re too blunt.
Speak up! Don’t be so chatty.
You need to grow up, stop acting so adult.
You should smile more, you laugh too much.
You need to be more assertive, don’t be so bossy.
Don’t be a doormat, don’t be too aggressive.
And on and on! Sometimes these comments were even made by the same person, at different points in time. Who else has a side of whiplash to go with their feelings of inadequacy?
If you took a moment to consider all the ‘feedback’ you’ve had throughout the years, I’d bet it’s equally contradictory. No wonder some women struggle to navigate professional environments - we never know what version of ourselves will be considered appropriate, by whom and at what time.
We’re also not rewarded for being self-promotional and self-important the same way that men are. When men do it, they are seen as charming and charismatic. But when women do it, people are put off.
… And it’s even worse for women of colour
Women who are “Onlys” - as in, one of the only people of their race or gender in the room at work - have especially difficult day-to-day experiences. I know, because I’ve been an Only myself.
Onlys stand out, and because of that, we tend to be more heavily scrutinised. Our successes and failures are often put under a microscope, judged more harshly, and we are more likely to encounter comments and behaviour from our peers that reduce us to negative stereotypes.
Women of colour often have to contend with two Only identities at once: being the only woman in the room and the only person of their race.
Double-Onlys face even more bias, discrimination and pressure to perform - and we’re even more likely to suffer burnout as a result.
A quick personal anecdote - in my second job after university (where I was the only Black person in the building), I conducted myself in what I believed to be a professional and efficient manner. Until one day I was taken aside and told that some of my colleagues found me to be “aggressive” and “intimidating”.
I was shocked, as I saw myself as polite and helpful - never rude. Women (particularly Black women) reading this will be nodding knowingly; when we assert ourselves, we are “angry”, despite displaying behaviour no different than our colleagues, so why are these same characteristics perceived so negatively?
Since that discussion, I went out of my way to be super nice at work. And yet over time, this “niceness” was now seen as a negative. “You’re too nice, no one will take you seriously” or “I asked you to do this assignment rather than colleague X because I knew you’d say yes.”
My carefully engineered niceness had now been weaponised against me and people were taking advantage. The workplace persona that I had adopted in order to stay on the right side of my colleagues was so embedded, it was too late to take it back.
“Once you start trying to be nice, you are forever beholden to the tyranny of your own niceness."
Women are victims of unconscious bias and imposter syndrome - it’s a self-fulfilling cycle
We are all guilty of unconscious bias. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, it’s a byproduct of the society in which we’ve been raised. Addressing and rectifying our bias became a big topic of conversation during the BLM rallies of summer 2020, but even all the placards put together fail to articulate the size of the issue.
As you’ll likely know, unconscious biases are learned assumptions, beliefs or attitudes that we aren’t necessarily aware of - when we assume certain qualities about a person because of their race, gender or socioeconomic status. This bias affects our decision-making and our perception of others and their abilities.
Similarly, affinity bias is the tendency to favour people in our own groups; people who share our background, beliefs or appearance. In turn, we avoid, and even dislike, people who are different from us.
The people in power are gatekeepers to our progress. When affinity bias comes into play - and it almost always does - then they tend to reward those who remind them of themselves. When all the gatekeepers share certain homogeneous characteristics, individuals who are different, in gender or race, are unfortunately likely to struggle.
Overcoming other people’s unconscious bias is a huge contributor to imposter syndrome… and those who live at the intersection of race and gender have multiple biases working against them simultaneously.
To that point, fine jewellery designer Kassandara Lauren Gordon has written openly and honestly about the difficulties Black people experience while trying to thrive in an industry dominated by people who do not look like them.
All of this is to say that women are far more likely to experience imposter syndrome when they enter spaces where they are historically underrepresented. Which, thanks to affinity bias and the way it shapes the patriarchy, is a heck of a lot of places indeed.
Yes, female representation has increased in many sectors. But women - and especially women of colour - remain significantly underrepresented in leadership. Women of colour account for only 4% of C-Suite leaders (in the USA), a number that hasn’t moved significantly in the past three years despite promises made.
What’s more, the women in power who are fighting hard to advance diversity, equity and inclusion risk being ignored. Female leaders are up to twice as likely to spend substantial time on DEI work than men at the same level.
How do we tackle imposter syndrome when it all seems so grim?
If we make enough noise, we can enact change.
Let’s not forget that homogeneous groups create homogeneous outcomes. The first step in tackling imposter syndrome is to change the environments in which it is most likely to occur. Then, we need to stop blaming ourselves when imposter syndrome sneaks in. We aren’t the ones at fault - it’s the historical and cultural shitshow (my words, not HBR’s!) that we’ve inherited.
In other words an individual cannot be blamed for their own imposter syndrome, without addressing the context which allowed it to manifest in the first place:
“Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work... The same systems that reward confidence in male leaders, even if they’re incompetent, punish white women for lacking confidence, women of color for showing too much of it, and all women for demonstrating it in a way that’s deemed unacceptable.”
So, this is my message to the people in power:
Build diverse teams, don’t blame a “pipeline problem”, and consider the needs of the diverse members of your company so that they feel included. Opinions and behaviours don’t change overnight, but we must start somewhere; to do nothing is to be complicit.