Why we should stop talking about imposter syndrome in women

4th August 2022

Chartered Occupational Psychologist Dr Maggi Evans talks about the pitfalls of imposter syndrome and five ways to change our mindset

Most of us have heard of imposter syndrome, a term first used in the 1970s to refer to the challenges that many high achieving women were experiencing.

I was invited to speak about this important topic at a Civica event for the company’s Women’s Affinity Group, one of a series of groups launched to support equity, diversity and inclusion across Civica.

Lots of women I work with have applied the term to themselves – used as shorthand to describe the feelings of inadequacy, the need to over prepare so you’re not caught out or the focus on why you can’t, rather than why you can. These experiences don’t just affect women; plenty of people across all genders are increasingly describing how they feel constantly as if they are ‘on the outside’, about to be ‘found out’.

For many, these aren’t occasional feelings. They colour their daily working lives, taking huge amounts of energy to keep the feelings in check and to enable them to continue performing.

However, using the ‘imposter syndrome’ label may unintentionally make things worse. The language of a ‘syndrome’ from which you ‘suffer’ sends out a message that it’s a problem with the person experiencing it. Certainly, senior women I coach often talk about wanting to ‘fix’ their imposter syndrome, as something that holds them back. But placing the blame with women risks over-simplifying things and masking what is really happening.

And what’s likely happening is that this is a natural response to the environment that women have operated in all their lives. In her fascinating book, ‘The Authority Gap’, Mary Ann Sieghart shares some startling data about the environment which shapes the behaviour and confidence of girls and women. For example, parents asked to estimate their child’s IQ will, on average, put their son’s at 115, their daughter’s at 107.

According to one American study, researchers found, “Girls learn to mind themselves, stay out of mischief and settle for a quiet role in the classroom”, while another researcher referred to school as a “confidence factory for boys but a competence factory for girls – encouraging the hyper-conscientiousness that we see in the workplace”. And this continues into adulthood, where workers are more likely to recommend a man than a woman for a role that requires someone of high intellect and motivation.

Another problem with the language of imposter syndrome is that it can under value the importance of some self-doubt and questioning. Rather than encouraging women to ignore or manage their questioning, we should focus on helping them to productively channel it, to harness it as a strength that enables them to consistently improve.

So if the feelings are real, what can we do to support and empower women to thrive? Here are some simple tips

  1. Have perspective – it’s empowering to reflect on the data shared here, as it shows that experiencing self-doubt is a natural response to the environment you live in. Naming this context can be very empowering and help you realise you are not broken but the problem lies in the overall system.
  2. Have a positive mindset – focus on what you can do and keep a list of your strengths and how you can use them even more. If you can’t do something right now, say “I can’t do it YET”. Think about what makes you feel positive and confident and how can you do more of this.
  3. Learn from role models – find people you admire and ask how they manage it? For example, former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when asked how she had the confidence to be the only woman in meetings with powerful men all over the world, answered that she made sure she was more prepared than anyone else in the meeting. This hard work gave her the confidence, “To walk in like I owned the place”.
  4. Order and routine – when you start to doubt yourself, it can feel as if you’re losing control. To combat this, you can create habits that give you a sense of being prepared, habits that signal to yourself that you are calm, confident and ready. Many sports people recognise the huge power of these habits – just watch Rafa Nadal preparing to serve in a big match.
  5. Find your people – you’re not alone! Returning to Condolezza: “Preparedness isn’t all you need – you also need strong mentors who will advocate for you.” Many organisations, such as Civica, actively encourage mentoring and affinity groups. Who are your advocates and who can mentor and support you?

All of this will help but cannot solve the problem alone. This will need a shift in focus – we need to stop trying to fix women and start fixing the system.

We all need to play a part in this. We may like to think that we’re consistently being an advocate, but we may not recognise some of our behaviours or biases that are unintentionally contributing to women’s feelings.

Mary Ann Sieghart suggests paying attention and noticing if we’re interrupting women more than men, are we listening less attentively to them at meetings? Are we more prone to use adjectives like 'pushy' or 'aggressive' when thinking about a woman in authority? If so, then ask yourself why am I doing this and what’s the impact? How can we all check our behaviour and do our bit to really bring about change in the system?