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‘Someone will find me out’ – Impostor Phenomenon and the toll it takes on working women

Logically, I know I’m good at what I do. But I’m still constantly afraid someone is going to find me out for being a fraud.

Millions of peopleone researcher estimated 70% of people at one time in their lives – get up each day and face the fear of being found out as a phoney in the face of evidence to contrary.

The nagging feeling that the role they have should have gone to someone more capable can be a constant and unwelcome companion for many. The sense that at any point someone is going to tap him or her on the shoulder and say they’d been appointed to a project by mistake drives many to overwork to assuage their fear of failure and engage in rampant perfectionism.

Despite being clearly and evidently capable, many still believe themselves to be simply not good enough.

Impostor Phenomenon (IP), the feeling of intellectual phoniness first theorised by American psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, is something that is often thought of as an individual concern and something that exists only in the heads of those who experience it. And in one sense this is true.

We may unknowingly look at someone experiencing IP and think that they are successful, confident and outwardly comfortable with their own achievements. Inwardly, though, they’re often a mess of fearful, self-critical and blunder-loathing anxiety.

However, when talking to people – and women in particular – about their experiences of IP, one gets a sense that the workplace is unknowingly perpetuating the feeling of being less than capable. Traditional processes, systems and behaviours are inadvertently confirming employees’ narratives of being bogus.

Impostors in the workplace

A simple example plays out every day in most workplaces. Managers may allow people to blame themselves for the mistakes of others and disavow themselves of creditworthy work. We hear it all the time. “Oh, no. Don’t praise me, it was ‘so and so’ who made the difference!” Despite knowing this to be untrue, how many of us have allowed our colleagues to diminish their own achievements in this way or batted it away as humility? Externalisation of achievement to others where success is clearly of one’s own making is a classic IP characteristic.

The Why Factor - Imposter Syndrome. BBC21.8 MB (download)

While this seems innocuous, it allows people to confirm to themselves that they are not good enough. It plays to a script that allows them to constantly prove themselves correct in their assumptions of being a fake.

It’s a complex narrative that pushes the impostor to be right all the time and being right means they need to confirm their estimation of their incompetence. When “impostors” achieve some form of success (often through overwork, perfectionism and a fear of failure) they push their achievements on to others. Thus, they create and maintain a plausible narrative of them being an impostor.

What’s even more distressing is that when “impostors” logically and unemotionally appraise their endeavours, achievements and successes, they can clearly (if begrudgingly) see the accomplishments as their own. But they just can’t bring themselves to accept it. “Accept praise? Oh no! My toes are curling with discomfort just thinking about it,” said one self-confessed “impostor” – a respondent to research into the phenomenon in women in STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths).

This is the hideous dichotomy of the phenomenon. The intellectual and emotional dissonance this creates is robbing “impostors” of the opportunity to celebrate or even accept their own achievements.

So why is this important?

The early work of Pauline R Clance focused on high-achieving women and, while research has been extended more broadly, it is generally believed to be a gender-based phenomenon more commonly affecting women. One suggested reason is that women may experience the “double whammy” of being both disadvantaged in the workplace and held back by their own involuntary sense of being not good enough.

Research suggests that Imposter Phenomenon disproportionately affects women. BarakBlueSky via Shutterstock

Gender gaps in pay, a lack of representation at senior levels of management and on boards, the over-representation of women in low-pay occupations and the intention to leave occupations such as engineering by women in mid-career feed a plausible story that women should earn less, are unsuited to leadership and are “naturally suited” to certain occupations. While the story is pervasive, it’s a sham. The narrative is fuelling incorrect assumptions and perpetuating a gender divide.

This might mean that they negotiate a poorer remuneration package, fail to apply for promotional opportunities and get passed over for roles.

While diversity and inclusion initiatives are common in organisations, there are misgivings about how effective these are as they often still rely on a traditional notion of people identifying their own worth accurately.

While one might suggest that women and others who experience IP should just stop being so self-defeating and do themselves a favour, the reality is more complex and difficult. Illogical but deeply held beliefs are often laid down in childhood and become embedded into adulthood. As such, they are rarely easily modified without disquiet or angst.

It’s not uncommon that, rather than try to shift a lifetime of confirming the “impostor” narrative, people will just choose to leave or remain in a current position where they may be unfulfilled, but at least won’t be exposed as the phoney they believe themselves to be.

In short, while individuals may struggle with the Impostor Phenomenon and the dissonance and angst it can bring, traditional notions of how we identify and apportion success and achievement, how we manage performance and how managerial behaviours perpetuate the phenomenon should be examined. Modifying these structures will go a long way towards realising the potential of women and others who could otherwise continue to hide their light – and valuable contributions – under a bushel.

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