More than 40 years ago, the term imposter syndrome was first introduced to explain an “internal experience” prevalent amongst high-achieving women in the workplace who felt they were frauds or “phonies” despite their accomplishments and exemplary credentials (Pauline Rose Clance). Since then, successful women like author Maya Angelou, Sian Proctor, the first Black woman to pilot a spacecraft, and former first lady Michelle Obama have opened up about their feelings of not being good enough (CNBC, New York Times). And an entire industry on “overcoming imposter syndrome in the workplace” or “how to power pose yourself out of self-doubt” has capitalized on fixing this insecurity.
Beyond the Ted Talks and how-tos, there is barely any examination into the root of this phenomenon. Instead, conversations on imposter syndrome in the workplace put the onus on the individual, particularly women of color, to uplift and see their value in an environment that continues to dismiss and question their worth.
• Take the Impostor Test to assess to what extent you are experiencing imposter syndrome, if at all.
• Demand pay transparency not only in the workplace but during the hiring process. As recruiters and hiring managers, provide the median salary for the role so applicants can best asset their value and work towards closing the gender wage gap and ask gap.
• As managers, employers, and senior executives, provide career support, guidance, or sponsorship for employees who don’t just look like you to foster opportunities and open doors.
When psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term in 1978, the research only focused on white middle-to-upper-class women between 20 and 45. By the mid-80s,”70% of people from all walks of life,” including white men, resonated with the term, sharing similar sentiments of feeling “like impostors for at least some part of their careers” (Chronicle of Higher Education). However, while feeling unconfident and second-guessing yourself in a professional work setting is universal, the burden shifts when factoring in the gender and racial biases of corporate America.
More than half of women said they felt like imposters compared to 24% of men (HR Magazine). And imposter sentiments amongst African-American college students often coincided with discrimination-related depression and anxiety (Journal of Counseling Psychology).
Overcoming imposter syndrome is not an individual problem that requires self-actualization. It can result from systemic issues that stem from institutionalized discrimination during the hiring process and employment (BBC). And can affect job performance, increase burnout, and be detrimental to a person’s mental health (Cleveland Clinic).
To alleviate the prevalence of imposter syndrome, specifically in women of color, employers must acknowledge and eradicate these biases in the workplace.
Gender bias influences hireability. Even when resumes were identical except for names, applicants with traditionally female names were considered less qualified and offered a lower starting salary than their male counterparts (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
This devaluation of women’s work bars them from job opportunities, equitable salaries, and mobility in the workforce. Careers like caregiving and teaching are categorized as female professions and are, therefore, undervalued and underpaid (The Atlantic). When gender was the only differing variable, women educators in Pennsylvania, including principals and superintendents, were losing out on about $500 – $4,000 despite their majority in the field (Edweek, Insider). Male educators are also sought-after for administrative roles and fast-tracked to higher positions, reinforcing male superiority and status over a female-dominated profession. However, this occurrence is not replicated when the tables are reversed. In fact, as more women enter male-dominated occupations, the pay decreases, widening the gender wage gap (New York Times).
As it currently stands, women earned just 83.1% or 16.9 cents on the dollar of what men made in 2021. And when accounting for race and ethnicity, the full-time earnings of Hispanic women was 58.4%, 63.1% for Black women, and 79.6% for white women compared to the earnings of white men (Institute for Women’s Policy Research).
This gap in pay and undervaluing of women’s work also plays out in salary negotiations where marginalized people ask for less money despite their qualifications (BBC). “Some researchers have estimated that a difference of $1,000 (£700) in starting salary could lead to a cumulative loss of a half-million dollars (£353k)” due to the “ask gap.”
Shortchanging women’s work and work done by women is further exacerbated when factoring in race.
Since this country’s founding, the exploitation of free labor through enslavement has been at the expense of Black women and for the profit of white men. More than 150 years later, Black women are still denied workplace safety and accommodations that recognize their humanity. They disproportionally participate in the labor force at higher rates among women and working mothers. And like Hispanic women, they are expected to do so with less pay and fewer opportunities for advancement (American Progress, Bureau of Labor Statistics). Today, it takes Black women 19 months to make what the average white man takes home in a year (American Association of University Women).
A lack of representation in a company, especially in higher-paying positions, sends a clear message to minorities that they don’t belong here. Gender pay gaps or unpaid parental leave that make it impossible to survive or generate wealth and mobility enforce the ideals that you and your work are of no value. And despite getting a seat at the preverbal table due to your qualifications, feeling undeserving of success is backed by discontent from peers who label you a diversity hire.
Just like it’s improbable for marginalized people to pull themselves out of poverty without dismantling the systems that permeate economic inequality, overcoming imposter syndrome is unlikely without addressing the underlying issues.
• For women of color, overcoming imposter syndrome is impossible when there are incidences of discrimination and bias in the workplace.
• Gender bias against women results in women getting passed up for jobs, promotions, and equitable salaries to their male equivalents despite being equally qualified.
• Marginalized people are prone to imposter syndrome and self-doubt if there is a lack of representation in the workplace, especially in higher positions.