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Why Women are Rejecting Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome has long been thought of as an essential practice in the workplace, a necessary evil in ensuring nobody rises above their station. For women in particular, it seems almost like a rite of passage. Without imposter syndrome, a successful woman might be considered egocentric, conceited or immodest. Giving in to the feelings associated with imposter syndrome can often hold female executives back, confined by the fear of being outed as a fraud. But how can a feeling so universal be considered a 'syndrome'? How can a feeling that forces us to recognise our growth be a negative thing? When we consider the exact symptoms that lead to an imposter syndrome diagnosis, we might find that this condition actually serves as an essential stage in the journey of personal development and begin to understand why contemporary society is rejecting imposter syndrome.

Coining the Phrase


The phrase 'imposter syndrome' was first coined by clinical psychologists, Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes, in their 1978 publication “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. Both clinical psychologists, they noticed that many of their highly successful female clients did not feel worthy of their achievements. These clients were undergraduates, medical students and PhD faculty at universities across the country and all noted feelings of worry that they had cheated their way into their programmes. The doctors labeled this experience a phenomenon, an event that is observed, rather than a syndrome, signs or symptoms often indicating a particular condition or disease. The use of language when speaking about these feelings is relevant to how we perceive imposter syndrome both in ourselves and in other people. The addition of 'syndrome' implies that there is something to cure and recalls the “female hysteria” diagnoses of the nineteenth century and explains why many women in the today's world are rejecting the diagnosis of imposter syndrome. In reality, these feelings of doubt and uncertainty are an unsavoury but often unavoidable part of being a woman in the workforce.


Imposter Syndrome in the Modern Workforce


Women with laptop looking sadly out a window

The concept of imposter syndrome has become ubiquitous in the modern workforce, with nearly 70% of workers stating that they have experienced the feeling at some point in their career. The reasoning for this can be chalked down to the way in which new generations are approaching their careers. Imposter syndrome often rears its head in times of change or transition, which in today’s working world, is more common than it used to be. Job hopping has become a standard practice among Gen Z and Millennials with over 22% of workers aged 20 and older spending a year or less at their jobs in 2022. These career pivots often bring higher pay, greater benefits and prestigious titles but they also carry with them a great deal of fear and anxiety. Entering into a company where the people, culture and role is unknown to you can instil a sense of self-doubt in an individual leading to feelings of fraud or inadequacy. While these feelings are common for most people beginning in a new position, they can often feel debilitating and isolating.


Imposter Syndrome and Women


While imposter syndrome can affect people of any gender, it has been found to be more prevalent among women, especially those in executive positions or in male-dominated fields. A 2023 KPMG study found that 75% of female executives across industries have experienced imposter syndrome in their careers. Despite considerable progress in feminism in recent years, it's clear that the professional sphere was predominantly shaped by and for men and undoing decades of systematic discrimination and unconscious biases is not an easy thing to do. Imposter syndrome has been shown to disproportionately effect marginalised individuals as a result of these individuals feeling as though they don’t fit in to certain situations due to the way they look or act. Traits that are perceived as essential for men looking to progress in their careers, can carry completely different connotations when presented by a woman. Where a man might be self-assured, confident and assertive, a woman may be seen as bossy, cold and unyielding. Thus, women often feel the need to change their behaviour in order to succeed or to fit in. As a result, this leaves them unsure of where they stand and how to progress in their field. This disparity in the workforce has led to a rise in women challenging the inequality in executive positions and rejecting the idea that imposter syndrome is something that is holding them back.

Rejecting Imposter Syndrome


Women working together at a table

When you break down the factors that make up imposter syndrome, you come to realise that, fundamentally, this phenomenon arises from being in a phase of personal or professional development. While ongoing feelings of stress or anxiety at work should be recognised and addressed, the underlying feeling of being tentative of your position in a company can often indicate that you are in a position to develop your skills and expand your potential options for the future. Being in such a position opens you up to greater opportunities and allows you to take up space in rooms with people from whom you can learn a great deal. It can also highlight capabilities and skills that you didn't realise you possessed. By rejecting the label of 'imposter syndrome' and shifting your mindset to see it as an indicator of a transformative stage of your career rather than something that is holding you back, you can begin to stifle those feelings of self-doubt and insecurity and instead view them as gratitude and growth. The real concern may actually be when that feeling goes away and might indicate that it’s time to move on.


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