As humans, we occasionally doubt our abilities as this allows us to have some form of self-awareness. When this is taken to the extreme, however, it can lead to imposter syndrome. Coined by psychologists Pauline Rose Clancy and Suzanne Imes in 1978, the concept of imposter syndrome, or imposter phenomenon, states that those with this condition experience feeling like a phony or imposter. They feel that they don’t belong and that all their successes are achieved through luck and not skill. It can stem from many factors both internal and external, and should be taken seriously.
The term originally focused on high-achieving women. It has since been broadened to include all high-achieving people, although many women have publicly spoken about experiencing it. Famous women such as Viola Davis, Charlize Theron, and even Michelle Obama have spoken about their experiences. All of their experiences seem to have an underlying similarity - they feel that something within them is causing them to feel this way. What they don’t mention and what isn’t really discussed is why imposter syndrome exists in the first place and what external factors are inciting it in women. Because this concept was introduced in the late 1970s, many factors involving society, racism, and classism were not included. We know that in today’s social climate, there are many biases that we can definitively say play a critical role in this phenomenon.
Many groups were excluded from the original study, specifically women of color and people of various socioeconomic levels. What we have to be cautious about is that imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, directing our view toward fixing women themselves rather than fixing the environment around women. It’s also important to differentiate between genuine imposter syndrome and low self-confidence. Just because you feel unsure about your abilities and have some form of biases doesn’t mean that you have this condition. Additionally, researchers found that workplace environments are a major powerhouse in cultivating imposter syndrome in working women. Many times, the competence and contributions of women are invalidated by their male coworkers and superiors. They constantly have to battle with microaggressions and labels of “hysteria” that are outdated and backward in thinking. The original concept of imposter syndrome fails to include this dynamic and deflects the blame of systematic discrimination towards women.
Imposter syndrome has the potential to be a groundbreaking concept, but falls short because of its toxic narrative that’s persisted decade after decade. Rather than focusing on fixing the women with this condition, we must focus on changing the culture so that we can address systemic bias and racism. We need to stop misdiagnosing women with imposter syndrome and get to the root of the issue. This will take time and effort, but it will be worth it.
Tushyan, R. & Burey, J. A. (2021). Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome