• The Feminist Times

Why is Imposter Syndrome common amongst Women?



Impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud.” Individuals suffering from this syndrome believe that they are not as competent as they are perceived to be and that their accomplishments are a fluke. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it can also be linked to perfectionism and social context. The term was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s and was first studied solely on high-achieving female participants, however, lately, it came to be recognized as a more universal phenomenon.

In imposter syndrome, the individual experiences an unwarranted sense of insecurity about their abilities. Psychologists have found that the source of such feelings can be linked to interpersonal comparison tendencies among people. People who are highly skilled or accomplished tend to believe that others around them are just as skilled. This can spiral into feelings that they don’t deserve accolades or opportunities over other people. There is often no threshold of accomplishment that puts these feelings to rest. Feelings of imposterism are not restricted to highly skilled individuals either. Everyone is susceptible to a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance, wherein we doubt ourselves privately but believe we are alone in thinking that way because no one vocalizes their doubts. Since it is tough to really know how hard our peers work, how difficult they find certain tasks or how much they doubt themselves- there is no easy way to dismiss feelings that make us believe we are less capable than those around us.

Such feelings of fraudulence are common across race, age, sex and a range of occupations, though it may be more prevalent and disproportionately affect the experiences of underrepresented or disadvantaged groups. Systematic oppression based on the social or ethnic identity of a person can chip at their confidence to an extent that makes them question their achievements so much so that it can be misconstrued as imposter syndrome. This is precisely why earlier it was surmised that imposter syndrome is a women exclusive phenomenon, not because women were inherently plagued more by anxiety or low self-confidence, but because they were ceaselessly made to believe that they are secondary to men and deserve menial jobs.

It has also been observed that corporate culture exacerbates the problem of imposter syndrome, particularly for women. The prevailing sexist stereotypes about women in society, such as “women are bad leaders”, “women are too emotional”, “women are not good at science and logical reasoning” and so on, cause women to incessantly doubt themselves. Even the traditional unrealistic beauty standards implicitly imposed on women can facilitate self-doubt as it imparts messages like “you, as a woman, are only valued for your looks or body and that is what determines your worth.” As a result of this, some women may start believing that they were only offered a position or job, or only made it this far because of their appearance and not because of their skills or abilities. “Women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community are most at risk,” says Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist based in New York. “When you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or underserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, imposter syndrome will occur.” We’re also more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don't see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field.

The most unquestionable way to combat imposter syndrome is to talk about it. Many people suffering from imposter syndrome are afraid that if they ask about their performance, their fears will be confirmed. And even when they receive positive feedback, it often fails to ease feelings of fraudulence. But on the other hand, hearing that an advisor or mentor has experienced feelings of imposterism can help relieve those feelings. The same goes for peers. Even simply finding out that there is a term for this feeling can be an incredible relief. Once you are aware of the phenomenon, you can combat your own imposter syndrome by collecting and revisiting positive feedback. We may never be able to banish these feelings entirely, but we can have open conversations about academic or professional challenges. It is important to note that it is not a disease or an abnormality and that it is more common than people think it is and is not necessarily tied to depression, anxiety or self-esteem.

The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals, but to create an environment that fosters a number of different leadership styles and where diversity of racial, ethnic, and gender identities is viewed as just as professional as the current model.


-By Gurman Kaur Chawla



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