Updated: Oct 17, 2020
When Amelia Earhart was invited to join The Society of Women Geographers, she demurely replied, “I am very much honored but doubtful of my qualifications. However, if the other members will bear with me a while, I’ll try to make up the deficiencies.” This is a classic example of the Imposter Syndrome.
Researcher Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes identified the syndrome in 1978. (Clance has developed an impostor syndrome test you can take.) The syndrome occurs when an individual, despite outstanding accomplishments, believes that he or she is a fraud or unworthy of praise. A person afflicted with the syndrome believes that, sooner or later, “everybody is going to find out the truth.” According to a 2018 UK poll, women suffer from the syndrome more often than men: (66% compared with 56%).
Cecelia Muñoz, author of More Than Ready, explores the Imposter Syndrome in her new book. Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Obama, notes: “I did not come out of the White House thinking I wanted to write a book at all — I did what women do, saying, ‘What would I have to say that would be of value to anybody?’” She wrote the book to persuade women of color that they are ready to assume leadership roles.
I did what women do, saying, ‘What would I have to say that would be of value to anybody?’”
Imposter Syndrome holds back employees. Professor Cary Cooper notes: The “syndrome can inhibit productivity and seriously limit an individual’s career progression. Self-doubt can also hold a highly-qualified person back from taking the chances that propel them forward.” Only 8% of women feel comfortable expressing their opinions at work.
Megan Dalla-Camina, writing for Psychology Today, advises women to remember: “You are here for a reason. In this job, your business, your life, you are worthy. You are better than you think you are. You are smarter than you think you are. You know more than you give yourself credit for.”
Farrah Storr, editor-in-chief of ELLE, says that the Imposter Syndrome is a blessing, not a curse: It “is a miraculous self-checking gauge that delivers excellence.” She explains: “Feeling fraudulent is a sign you are being challenged. And when we’re challenged that’s when we make true breakthroughs” by preparing, questioning, and delving deep into problems.
The syndrome impacts women of color harder than other women. Jolie A. Doggett explains in the HuffPost: “That’s because for us, the imposter syndrome isn’t just an imaginary voice in our heads. We can hear it loud and clear when we receive almost daily messages from society that we truly don’t belong.” But all women, including women of color, can overcome it. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor says: “[Although] … I have that initial insecurity, … I’m capable of stepping outside of it and proving to myself it’s wrong.” That’s what we all need to do.