Management & Leadership

Women in Leadership and the Imposter Syndrome

Women in Leadership and the Imposter Syndrome
According to a Nicola Skorko article on LinkedIn, 75 percent of female executives have felt the imposter phenomenon. Image from Pexels
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Megan Bottoms December 13, 2022

Women in leadership are particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome, the self-perception that they haven't earned their achievements. Our expert, a professor at Riverside City College, dissects this pernicious phenomenon.

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Have you ever walked into a room and sensed that you don’t belong?

Maybe you’ve been sitting in a meeting where everyone is discussing topics familiar to you but you’re too nervous or fearful to speak. Perhaps you experienced feelings of self-doubt while giving a presentation or participating in a project on which you are knowledgeable and yet you’re uncomfortable taking the lead. Maybe you’ve made a brilliant discovery but continue questioning whether you achieved it ‘correctly.’

In these situations, you might be inclined to turn around and walk out, refuse the project or opportunity, or stay quiet and let others talk over you. Many women in leadership positions fear they don’t belong in their roles or in rooms of power. We hesitate to speak up because we wonder whether what we have to say is correct or whether it will be validated.

Perhaps you have told yourself, “Thank goodness, you didn’t mess up this project,” or “At some point, they’ll realize you don’t belong.” You may have never been able to describe these feelings of inadequacy, but they are real and prevalent. Many women in executive leadership roles know this feeling; it is especially prevalent among women of color. The term has been called the imposter phenomenon.

What is imposter syndrome?

Impostor phenomenon, also known as impostor syndrome, is a psychological state in which a person questions the legitimacy of their own successes, skills, talents, and hard work. Those who experience imposter syndrome lack a sense of belonging; they suffer a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as frauds.

The term was established in 1978 by Dr. Suzanne Imes and Dr. Pauline Rose Clance, who observed what they perceived as unique anxiety in women. Their research revealed that women hold distorted perceptions of their work accomplishments; in their article, Imes and Clance reported how many of the 162 high-achieving women they surveyed displayed a pervasive pattern of dismissing their achievements and success.

Individuals who experience the imposter phenomenon have internalized the belief that they are professionally and intellectually fraudulent. As a result, they have difficulty accepting and enjoying the success that results from their professional and intellectual work.

Prevalence of imposter syndrome

Although not exclusive to women, imposter syndrome is more prevalent among high-achieving women. According to a Nicola Skorko article on LinkedIn, 75 percent of female execs have felt the imposter phenomenon. Skorko writes:

[T]he external reality is ‘You’re a powerful female leader, respected for your expertise and recognized for your contribution with the successful lifestyle to match.’ The internal perception is ‘You’ve fluked getting to where you are, you don’t deserve it, and you feel less than your peers, you’re fighting to be heard, and you don’t deserve the lifestyle you have.’

Many highly educated and intelligent women believe that perhaps they are in their role by some coincidence or mistake and are therefore unqualified to call themselves experts or professionals. The phenomenon is exacerbated in professions requiring a demonstration of particular expertise; these include doctors, lawyers, professors, judges, and engineers. Even Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor has acknowledged feeling like an imposter. She acknowledges spending years “always looking over my shoulder, wondering if I measure up.”

This impostor phenomenon can wash over us in sporadic bursts or drown us in constant self-doubt and critique. Imposter phenomenon often develops below our general level of conscience awareness and can be the major impediment to our success. In her book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Valerie Young talks about three overachieving themes of the imposter phenomenon:

  • How you define and experience success and failure influences how you interpret confidence and competence
  • Sociocultural and societal contexts influence a women’s self-limiting beliefs
  • A woman’s need to relate and affiliate with others is inseparable from her experience with achievement

According to several research studies, many successful women in all professions experience this imposter phenomenon. These women question their own knowledge, skills, abilities, and performance to the point that they have convinced themselves they are frauds and will be discovered as such.

Five subtypes of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is not a formal psychiatric diagnosis; it’s a psychological perspective and a form of internal storytelling. Young identifies five subtypes:

  • The Perfectionist, whose insecurity is related to self-imposed, unachievable goals
  • The Expert who might feel inadequate from lacking sufficient knowledge
  • The Super-Person, who assumes excessive workloads to feel okay among peers
  • The Natural Genius, who experiences shame when it takes effort to develop a skill
  • The Soloist, who believes that requesting help is a sign of weakness

    Other manifestations of imposter syndrome

    The imposter phenomenon also happens when a woman believes that she must diminish herself, hide aspects of herself, or contort herself into something she’s not to keep herself small or unobtrusive. This misrepresentation might mean refraining from applying for jobs below her skill level, not taking on challenges and new projects, or not speaking up with an idea or concern.

The imposter phenomenon can occur when a woman takes on a new career or transitions into a more professional position after graduating. For example, many women have experienced the imposter phenomenon after completing doctorate-level work in pharmacy, medicine, law, and education. When they subsequently take on full-time professional employment, these feelings might lead to a lack of trust in their abilities, concern about inadequacy, fear of making mistakes, and constant apprehensions about expectations.

Another hallmark of the imposter phenomenon is the inability to hear critical feedback without interpreting it as personal, triggering sweeping generalizations about you and your work. In this instance, critical feedback gets lost, and a woman might lose the benefit of significant advancement. A woman experiencing the imposter phenomenon might catastrophize everything in their work life and even mistake it for anxiety or depression. It can be very difficult to disentangle these associations.
Distinguishing imposter syndrome from other workplace challenges
Finally, it is crucial to note that the imposter syndrome differs from simply not having confidence or attuning to a male perspective. There is a difference between a simple nervousness about a new job or project and the overwhelming fear of inferiority or fraudulence. It is also more complex than confidence, equating to competence. Many women who experience the imposter phenomenon are knowledgeable and competent but need more capacity to adjust their perspective.

Then there are those women who genuinely experience discrimination in the workforce. In their article Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome , Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey describe how women, particularly women of color, are not necessarily experiencing the imposter phenomenon. The disproportionate effects of systemic racism, gendered and biased perspectives of professionalism, and mainstream medical simplification are all real, external phenomena distinct from the internalized imposter syndrome. Such factors as systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases were not as clearly recognized when Imes and Clance first published their work on imposter syndrome in 1978.

Some women suffering from the imposter phenomenon lack self-awareness or the capacity to internalize actual biases in their workplace and profession. These structural inequities and inconsistencies perpetuate these imposter feelings and can lead to misinterpreting the symptoms of structural inequality and the imposter phenomenon.



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Addressing imposter syndrome

The first step in addressing the imposter phenomenon is recognizing when you are experiencing these feelings. The imposter phenomenon is different from just experiencing low self-esteem. Understanding why the imposter phenomenon happens and how to identify these thoughts, address them, and counteract them with tangible solutions is essential.

Start by jotting down the last time you felt these feelings or made an excuse for your success. Include the details of your situation when you felt like an imposter and how you felt. Then jot down what was the actual outcome or result of the situation. Note the “aha” moments where the actual outcome was better than the destruction you portrayed in your mind. By naming those feelings and identifying where they occur the most, you can start to take control of the fear by anticipating where they may take hold. It will also help you to explore the trajectory of your imposter phenomenon and help you see the competent woman you indeed are.

It’s crucial to know you’re not alone in these feelings. Many women in power have struggled with and experienced the imposter phenomenon, from famous women like Hollywood stars Charlize Theron and Viola Davis to business leaders such as Sheryl Sandberg and even former First Lady Michelle Obama. Millions of women worldwide and throughout history of various ages, races, ethnic and cultural backgrounds with varying degrees of education and professions have experienced the imposter syndrome. It is essential to understand the typical reasons imposter phenomenon happens and how to identify these thoughts, address them, and counteract them with tangible measures.

Remember, you are not a fraud; you are a capable, strong, intelligent woman who has worked hard and deserves the success you have achieved.


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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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