Is What You’re Feeling Imposter Syndrome or Workplace Bias?

Second-guessing yourself in a new role or concerns about measuring up against more experienced or more senior colleagues is something anyone might feel in a high-stakes situation. Add to that the increased scrutiny that women, and especially women of color, often receive in the workplace, and perhaps those fears you have of not making the grade are not coming from inside your head as much as they are the result of cues from the external environment.
Writing in Harvard Business Review (HBR), author Ruchika Tulshyan, and speaker and podcast host Jodi-Ann Burey, make the point that overusing the “imposter syndrome” label focuses attention on fixing women instead of fixing the places where women work. In “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,” they assert that rather common feelings of workplace uncertainty are too often turned into a label pinned only on women.
Understanding Imposter Phenomenon
Imposter Phenomenon was first observed in female undergraduates in the 1970s and described by psychologists Susanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. They didn’t call it imposter “syndrome” because it’s not a clinical diagnosis, even though that’s often the term lay people use to refer to it today, likely further stigmatizing women who may be experiencing a temporary lack confidence in the strength of their own abilities.
Imes and Clance observed deep fears of inadequacy among competent female students who were meeting external standards, but tended to attribute their success to luck rather than their own abilities. Clance called their feelings an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness.”
While everyone can feel fearful of not meeting expectations or outmatched by a more experienced colleague, women (and men) experiencing imposter phenomenon often have an ongoing sense that they aren’t really qualified to hold their position, worry that they are somehow faking it, and fear that their lack of competence will ultimately be discovered.
Ironically, feelings of inadequacy can actually lead to underperformance. Fearing failure, some people procrastinate in tackling big initiatives, ultimately creating a built-in excuse for not meeting goals or performance metrics due to a lack of time. Others become obsessively focused on over-preparation or perfectionism. Still others avoid stretch assignments and big goals if success cannot be assured. The end result can be stymied progress, excessively deferring to others, anxiety around weaknesses being discovered and, ultimately, exhaustion and burnout.
Even higher stakes for women of color
Being or feeling different from your coworkers and peers can increase the likelihood of experiencing feelings of imposter phenomenon. A University of Texas at Austin study found that differing in any way from the bulk of your peers (such as by race, age, gender, sexual orientation or educational background) can increase feelings of being a fraud. People of color who work or study in mostly white environments tend to experience imposter feelings at higher rates. When you don’t feel that you belong, it’s easy to conclude that the problem is with you, rather than in the environment itself. And that’s something we may be getting very wrong.
Environmental impact
Writing in HBR, Tulshyan and Burey make the case that many behaviors attributed to imposter phenomenon in women can more accurately be explained by looking at very real workplace bias, sexism and additional obstacles that women, and even more so women of color, face. Persistent microaggressions may indeed erode women’s workplace confidence. But it might also be the case that the logical reactions women have to workplace systems that unduly penalize or fail to support them get misinterpreted as arising from an internal lack of confidence within women rather than a lack of trust in their organizations.
The authors also explain that the “imposter syndrome” label is damaging itself; with “imposter” suggesting some sort of criminal fraudulence and “syndrome” harkening back to 19th Century descriptions of “female hysteria.”
“The answer to overcoming imposter syndrome is not to fix individuals but to create an environment that fosters a variety of leadership styles and in which diverse racial, ethnic, and gender identities are seen as just as professional as the current model,” Tulshyan and Burey write.
Protect yourself from self-sabotage
Before you label yourself, or accept the label of “imposter phenomenon” applied to you, take a long look at your situation from a more objective view. Do you have similar competencies, experience and results as others in like positions? Are women and men rewarded similarly in your organization, not only for similar results, but for the same behaviors? Building support systems with trusted mentors and other women colleagues can provide a critical sounding board to share concerns about whether expectations and treatment are similar for all members of the team, regardless of gender or race.
If feelings of anxiety and worry are growing or impeding your ability to perform your job, or enjoy life outside of work, consider talking with a counselor. Otherwise, recognize that everyone feels nervous and uncertain at times at work, especially if you’ve recently advanced into a new role or taken on a high-visibility project. Take a moment to consider whether workplace practices and behaviors toward women might be exacerbating those feelings for you, or other women you work with. Then share your experiences and work together to provide mutual support and to call the attention of leadership to practices that need to be changed to better support women, rather than diagnose them.

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