In the late 1970s, two psychologists conducted a study of women executives and loosely labeled their observation that women believed they were not as bright as others and feared being discovered as a fraud, as the Imposter Phenomenon. No matter how talented, skilled, or educated, the high-achieving women confided they distrusted their success, felt phony, didn’t belong, or didn’t deserve the role they had achieved. All this despite being qualified, accomplished, and capable.
Fast forward almost forty years later, and we still hear about the Imposter Syndrome. It has evolved into a convenient label to smack on issues affecting women and achievements, with many quick-fix solutions available through a quick Google search. Most solutions focus on changing the person’s perception of themselves, often by listing accomplishments or repeating positive affirmations. Despite the myriad of suggested remedies, this phenomenon or syndrome persists. Has nothing changed, or are we simply trying to put a more widespread concern into a neat little box by continuing to view it as an internalized concept of women?
One of the most-read articles published by the Harvard Business Review addresses a different viewpoint of this misdirected concept: Stop Telling Women they have Imposter Syndrome
The February 2021 article summary was written by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey and published in the Diversity and Inclusion section. Here is the authors’ summary, with the full article accessible online at HBR:
“Imposter syndrome,” or doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud at work, is a diagnosis often given to women. But the fact that it’s considered a diagnosis at all is problematic. The concept, whose development in the ‘70s excluded the effects of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases, took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women. 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.
An important point the authors make further addresses the limitations of the original study:
Many groups were excluded from the study, namely women of color and people of various income levels, genders, and professional backgrounds. Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.
What’s less explored is why imposter syndrome exists in the first place and what role workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it in women. We think there’s room to question imposter syndrome as the reason women may be inclined to distrust their success.
Our short answer to the title question: Yes, individuals, especially women, continue to experience self-doubt, anxiety, and a lack of confidence in situations where achievement and recognition are involved. More digging into what part current working environments play in creating a climate where a strong sense of self – regardless of gender, origins, or socio-economic factors – is celebrated and encouraged is needed.
At e=mc2, The Centre for Business Excellence, we recently confirmed our diversity and inclusion beliefs. We consider the thought process involved as our starting point for building a foundation where Imposter Syndrome becomes a thing of the past. We embrace all cultures, welcome everyone, and recognize we work better together than segregated by beliefs, culture, genders, origins, or physical ability—one small step on a journey towards contributing to better working environments, but a step nevertheless.