When psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes developed the concept of Imposter Syndrome in 1978, their work focused on high-achieving women displaying a curious psychological pattern. Despite their obvious achievements, these women had persistent feelings that they were about to be ‘found out’ as a result of not really having the intelligence or talent to warrant their position.
Up to 75% of people report feelings of impostor phenomenon at some point in their lives, and the impacts of imposter syndrome can be a lack of risk-taking, confidence, unwillingness to ask for help, put oneself forward for opportunities and self-promote, all of which are barriers to a women’s progression.
But while the study advanced an understanding of the levers of inequity, imposter syndrome also gradually became co-opted as solely a woman’s responsibility to fix. If we felt like imposters, then we just needed to work on that in ourselves – using the word ‘syndrome’ only further embedding this idea. Clance noted, “Men […] tend to own success as attributable to a quality inherent in themselves; women are more likely either to project the cause of success outward to an external cause (luck) or a temporary internal quality (effort) that they do not equate with inherent ability.”
But while gender differences in psychology undoubtedly play a part in how we feel and understand situations, and personal growth around confidence, esteem and recognising unhelpful habits is always appropriate, what became lost was why women’s imposter syndrome might exist in the first place. Most crucially, external structures and workplace systems play a role in breeding and exacerbating it in women.
Recognising that this psychological pattern sits within a wider societal issue requires a more holistic approach that now looks to tackle the ‘imposter phenomenon’ rather than ‘syndrome’. We look at four catalysts for imposter feelings that aren’t about ‘you’- and how you can shift your mindset around them.
Working a male-dominated environment
While imposter syndrome can affect anyone, it’s often associated with high-achieving women working in male-dominated industries and in senior leadership, where men still hold 60% of manager-level positions while women occupy just 40%. Acculturative stress – the mental and emotional challenges of adapting to a dominant culture – and the bias that women can face around performance, leadership or ambition can often become internalised as self-doubt. Being in environments that place overt value on ‘traditionally male’ characteristics such as combative leadership styles, dominant behaviours, and confident self–promotion can also trigger ‘imposter’ feelings and inspire a sense of exclusion. In addition, women may also feel more pressure to prove themselves in male-dominated fields, leading to burnout as they overcompensate.
Ask yourself: What different perspectives and skills do I bring to the table, and how am I using them to leverage my success and that of my organisation? Also – what do I need to flourish at work – and is it okay to ask for it (short answer = yes)? Challenge the idea of ‘the way things are’ when you feel self-doubt. If a working culture was not originally designed with women in mind, it is little wonder we might feel inadequate in operating successfully within it.
Take action: Look for role models and connect with women who can offer inspiration, support and perspective. Be active about carving out a space for yourself aligned with your goals and strengths – and regularly fact-check your thoughts around your achievements with evidence of what you’ve accomplished. Develop self-promotion skills – don’t wait until year-end appraisals to highlight your skills and successes – and ask for actionable feedback. Harvard Business Review research showed women are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes with powerful effects on career progression.
For women of colour, ideas of ‘imposter syndrome’ can often be a powerful by-product of being a minority in a workplace – and repeatedly facing systemic and often intersectional bias around ethnicity and gender. The impact of systemic biases around race, social class and sexual orientation was not considered when the ‘imposter syndrome’ concept was developed, with women of colour and people of varying income levels and professional backgrounds notably absent from the study. “Who is deemed ‘professional’ is an assessment process that’s culturally biased and skewed,” says Tina Opie, associate professor at Boston’s Babson College, who points out the predominant model of the modern workplace is still “Eurocentric, masculine, and heteronormative.” Overcoming imposter syndrome is less an individual than a group effort, underpinned by creating an environment that nurtures a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse identities are visible to redefine ‘normal’ and create a sense of belonging for everyone.
Ask yourself: Is my sense of being an ‘imposter’ a result of a skills or experience gap that can be addressed – or are there biases at play undermining my sense of self and belonging? Am I seeing role models who can articulate and advise on challenges I might have faced – and if not, why not? Is diversity at all levels something my organisation is actively addressing, and how?
Take action: Finding mentors that resonate is a powerful way to gain perspective and support, whether through formal channels or ERGs. However, studies show that only 31% of black employees have access to a senior leader in the workplace compared to white employees (41%), and 67% of black professionals report no access to sponsors to help their career growth. Looking at the D&I work that your company is doing around recruitment, promotion and inclusive mentorship programmes – and how they are measuring success in these areas – can be a quick way to understand the value it places on DEI and, by extension, creating a safe, inclusive workplace in which everyone can flourish.
The tension between being a ‘good’ parent and having a ‘successful career’ is still reserved, in the main, for women. The transition to motherhood itself is often a challenging one, full of insecurity and anxiety around doing things ‘right’. Returning to work as a parent can compound that further, as women try to reconcile two identities with two sets of obligations while often feeling they have to overcompensate to show they are ‘still committed’ at work. How well companies support maternity returners or employees with families has a powerful impact on the numbers of female senior leaders down the line. A Voice at the Table survey showed that 85% of mothers who participated had left the full–time workforce within three years of having their first child, 19% of them altogether. The survey also found a 36% drop off at the management level after women have children. Without acknowledgement that adjustments must be made and support given to accommodate both areas, the chances of mothers feeling they’re not doing very well at either motherhood or work are incredibly high, creating an acute sense of anxiety and fear around their capabilities.
Ask yourself: What do I need to feel that I am successfully meeting the obligations of both parts of my life? And is my company supporting me in the way I need? Knowing what you need to succeed at your stage is the first step to asking for it – keeping in mind that the balance can change as children grow up.
Take action: A transition, by definition, means things cannot remain the same as they were. Instead of feeling like a ‘fraud’ because you are trying to return to BAU and making unrealistic expectations of yourself, speak up and ask for the adjustments and support you need to succeed in your new situation. New mums might also benefit from mentorship and coaching programs that pair those who have previously returned from maternity or raised a young family while holding down a demanding career, offering support and advice to build confidence and overcome doubts.
The effects of social media on confidence and sense of identity are now well documented, its snapshot format of perfect lives or unbridled success creating a vision of unrealistic expectations. Comparing ourselves to others through social media is one sure way to induce anxiety, but how we use the medium can also trigger imposter syndrome. According to Dr Elizabeth Lombardo, author of Goodbye Imposter Syndrome, the disconnect and sense that we are not really who we appear to be is increasing with social media use. ‘Many people post content that represents their ideal self. However, once you put those posts out there, then there is the sense that people think that is your ‘normal’. And that is when the imposter syndrome starts creeping in…”
Ask yourself: What message am I trying to give with my online posts and content on LinkedIn or other social media? And am I authentically interested in sharing with others – or are my posts a personal ‘advertising campaign’ that doesn’t feel aligned with my values and self?
Take action: Keep it real. There’s nothing wrong with posting positive, affirming posts, but being honest enough to ‘bring your whole self to work’ online means adding content that speaks to challenges, too. Perhaps you’ve been through an experience that might resonate with others, or there’s a cause you feel strongly about. Sharing ‘light and shade’ in your online world allows others to connect more authentically with you and dispels any sense that you’re ‘pretending to be something you are not’.