Updated: Mar 23, 2021
“Can coaching help me with my imposter syndrome?” asks Sue-Lin, a new client who was recently promoted to director of customer success in a growing tech company. She is not alone among my women clients in making this self-diagnosis. Over the years I have worked with many highly skilled and talented women of different ages, backgrounds, and experiences. Despite great qualifications, many cite imposter syndrome as one of their toughest inner struggles. However, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey questions the very notion of imposter syndrome and suggests that it is yet another way in which we blame individual women rather than acknowledging and tackling systemic bias in the workplace.
The term “imposter phenomenon” was coined in 1978, and captures the feeling familiar to so many women (and some men, too) that they are not good enough for the job or environment in which they find themselves, that they are always at risk of being discovered as a phony and a fraud. This notion has been popularized and has given rise to a plethora of advice on how to boost one’s confidence. However, as Tulshyan and Burey write:
“What’s less explored is why imposter syndrome exists in the first place and what role workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it in women.”
“The impact of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases was categorically absent when the concept of imposter syndrome was developed. Many groups were excluded from the study, namely women of color and people of various income levels, genders, and professional backgrounds. Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”