Have you ever felt inadequate at work? Have you ever heard the advice to simply “be more confident” or “try harder”?
Imposter syndrome is when an individual doubts their accomplishments and feels like a fraud—not a place that any of us want to stay in for long. Most of the advice for addressing this imposter complex tells individuals what they should do better, but individuals don’t act in a vacuum. Often the real issue is the system around us and how it causes people to doubt themselves.
I was asked to speak at the Women in STEM Leadership Summit on how to overcome imposter syndrome. My talk covered what imposter syndrome is, why we jump so quickly to blaming the individual instead of examining the systems around us, and practical tips on how to mitigate and prevent imposter syndrome. For a quick summary of the talk on Twitter, follow this link. For a detailed recap, read on below.
Note: The recap of the talk is in two parts. The first part, below, talks about what imposter syndrome is and why we need to look at it within the context of the system around us. Part two discusses how to overcome imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome was first identified in the 1970s by psychotherapists working with high-achieving women: Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes found that despite external achievements, many of the women they worked with did not feel successful and worried that others had overestimated their abilities. Since then, researchers have found that people of all genders can experience imposter syndrome, though it does seem to impact people more intensely when they’re part of an under-represented group in the workplace or a group that faces stereotypes about being less competent. (As a note, stereotypes about competence adversely impact not only women and other marginalised genders, but also people of colour, people with disabilities, neurodiverse folks, people who are older or younger in age, and others in marginalised groups.)
Though much of the advice about responding to imposter syndrome tells people to try harder or be more confident, that advice doesn’t address the root cause of the issue. Imposter syndrome doesn’t suddenly appear in people; it comes from somewhere.
Seeing the systems around us
I once met an author who writes stories about people with schizophrenia, orphaned children, thieves. When I asked her why she focuses on characters with such tough experiences, she said it’s because the people living at the edge of society show how the system impacts all of us.
In the same way, people with imposter syndrome show how the system impacts all of us.
Unfortunately, humans aren’t great at seeing the system—we have a tendency to think linearly, i.e., A causes B (see diagram of “Linear thinking”).
The real world is more complex and interwoven than that—maybe A causes B, but then B causes C causes D causes A, so B actually influences A again. Or maybe another factor E also impacts A or B (see diagram of “Systems thinking”).
Systems thinking offers a way to understand the complex, inter-woven relationships around us. This article offers a quick introduction to systems thinking and shows how it’s different from the linear thinking we typically use. If you want to go deeper, I recommend the book Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows.
Instead of spending more time now on theory, let’s put systems thinking into practice by trying some examples:
Example 1: Acne (diagram below). A friend of mine has acne and wanted to get rid of it. Their initial approach was to try to treat the acne, so they tried face cleansers and special creams but didn’t see enough of an improvement. Switching tack, they did research on the factors that cause acne: the issue is not only having pores that clog, but also the amount of inflammation that happens when the pores clog. In particular, dairy is an inflammatory agent so it can exacerbate acne. With this new information, my friend tried cutting dairy out of their diet, and it worked—their acne is largely gone.
Systems insight: Sometimes what looks like the “problem” (in this case, the acne) is actually a symptom of the problem (the skin inflammation, which caused the acne).
Example 2: Tense co-worker (diagram below). Our second systems example is an everyday situation that many of us have experienced: a tense co-worker who took things out on their colleagues by snapping at them in a meeting. A normal response to this co-worker would be to feel frustration and complain about their bad attitude—but what if we took a moment to understand the system around that person? We might learn that the co-worker’s friend recently had a stroke, and now the co-worker is stressed because they want to support their friend but can’t get the time off work.
Systems insight: When we look at the system, we can start to understand WHY people are doing things, not just WHAT they did.
The system that causes imposter syndrome
Now that we’ve had an interlude into systems thinking, let’s get back to the topic at hand: imposter syndrome.
A common response to imposter syndrome in women is what Sheryl Sandberg advocates in her book Lean In: Do more research, negotiate better, and be more assertive. Essentially: Make yourself act more confidently and push for what you want.
To evaluate this approach, let’s step back and think about the system around us—what is it like for women in leadership positions and in STEM fields today?
Across the board, women are under-represented:
Only 28% of STEM roles in New Zealand are held by women
There’s 1 woman CEO in the NZX50. The NZX “Gender Diversity Statistics” report shows that across the whole NZX, only 20% of directors are women, and it’s even worse in the IT sector, where only 10% of directors are women.
Some groups are so excluded from the system that we barely track or report on data about them. For example, there are fewer reports about the pay gap for women with disabilities, and data on representation and pay gaps usually leave out the statistics for folks who are non-binary or from another marginalised gender.
When we see trends this broad, it’s clear that these gaps don’t come from one individual who didn’t “try hard enough”; we have a system that’s not working for broad groups of people.
Moreover, these external trends get inside our heads—these gaps further influence how we perceive our co-workers, leading to double standards at work:
Perception of work quality varies by gender: Joan C. Williams, a law professor and founding director of the Center of WorkLife Law, found that women face the Prove-It-Again bias at work: When women are successful at a project, people are more likely to say that they got lucky, or that it was a team effort. When men are successful, people are more likely to say that it was because they are skilled and competent. In practice, this means that women, particularly women of colour, are asked to prove themselves again and again on the same types of work—meanwhile, men and white people are given more growth and step-up opportunities. This bias was further demonstrated by research that examined open-source projects on GitHub: the researchers found that women’s code was more likely to be approved than men’s—unless the coder’s gender was identifiable, in which case women’s code was less likely to be approved than men’s. In short, when gender was unknown, women’s work was perceived as higher-quality; when the gender was known, women’s code was perceived as lower-quality. This research implies that there isn’t a difference in the quality of code written by different genders; what changes is the perception of quality.
Competence-likability trade-off for women: Research shows that women (especially Asian women) face a trade-off at work between being liked or being seen as competent (Joan C. Williams calls this “The Tightrope”). One example of this is the Heidi-Howard study, where researchers took a real-life case study about a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist named Heidi and re-wrote it with “Howard”, a fictional man who had all the same traits as Heidi except for his name and gender. Researchers randomly assigned students to read one of the case studies, either learning about Heidi or Howard. At the end, the researchers asked students for their views on the entrepreneur: both Heidi and Howard were seen as competent, but where Howard was seen as likeable, Heidi was seen as “selfish” and “a little political”. It was the exact same story, but where Howard was competent and likeable, Heidi was competent but not liked.
Conversational patterns favour men: Even in the ways we talk, we are harsher towards women and give more leeway to men. Women are more likely to be interrupted than men, and when women interrupt others, they are seen more negatively than men who interrupt. Moreover, Dale Spender’s analysis of speech styles shows that the way we talk in public spaces matches how men speak, so when people of other genders participate in online discussions, they have to adapt their natural style to match men’s style—and that carries a cognitive load similar to working in a foreign language. For the discourse style to shift to women’s ways of communicating, there needs to be >60% women in a group and at least one active woman moderator. In summary, we interrupt women more than men, are harsher when women interrupt others, and expect other genders to match men’s conversational styles.
With all of that in mind, no wonder women and other marginalised groups feel imposter syndrome! Who wouldn’t feel it if you were working in an environment that didn’t include other people like you, minimised your work quality, assumed that you can’t be likeable if you’re competent, and made it harder for you to voice your thoughts?
In brief, imposter syndrome is a reflection of the world around us, which has internal and external barriers that make things harder for people from marginalised groups. In this context, it’s easy to understand why people sometimes feel inadequate at work.
This is the end of part one. Read on in part two for thoughts on how we ended up with this problem and what we can do to overcome imposter syndrome.