“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.”
The pathologizing of women’s experiences or “diagnosing difficult women” rather than addressing the oppressive social and political system is nothing new. For centuries, women were called hysterical or crazy for not being willing or able to tolerate the constraints of a restrictive, male-dominated world. For women of color, the bind has been even worse. One powerful example can be found in Anna Malaika Tubbs’ new book, “Three Mothers: How the Lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.” The author tells the story of Louise Little, Malcolm X’s mother, who was institutionalized from 1939-1963 after her husband was murdered by the KKK. In her committal letter, the White doctor deemed Little unfit to care for her children, finding that her personality had changed (Tubbs surmises that she was likely depressed after the loss of her husband) and that she was “imagining being discriminated against.” Imagine that.
In a White male-dominated workplace, it is hardly surprising that women of many diverse backgrounds and experiences would have a feeling of not belonging and not being good enough. The lack of role models and sponsors not only holds women back from advancing their careers, it also makes it harder to believe, as writer Tonya Russell tells herself, “you’re here because you’re qualified to be.”
But all the self-affirmation in the world won’t change structural, systemic biases. And as an executive coach, I am often faced with the reality that individual executive coaching by itself is a limited intervention. Thanks in part to the Me Too movement and ongoing racial reckoning, many organizations and companies are beginning to address these systemic issues.
But in the meantime, what are women who are experiencing a sense of inferiority and not fitting in to do?
1. Name it without self-blame. It can be helpful to give a name to your experience that you don’t belong and don’t deserve to be there and recognize that it is a known phenomenon. Instead of pathologizing your experience, know you are not alone, and you are not crazy. Feeling like a phony is not uncommon and doesn’t signify that something is wrong with you. Practice self-compassion rather than beating yourself up about it.
2. See the system. Acknowledge the systemic factors that work against your ability to cultivate a feeling of belonging. Instead of internalizing self-blame, it can help to step back and acknowledge that there are external reasons for your experience—structural failings in the organization rather than character flaws in you. And remember that the whole system will benefit as it evolves and embraces a more diverse talent pool and leaders. There is a growing body of research that diverse and inclusive teams produce better business outcomes.
3. Contribute where you can. Within your role and ability, take responsibility for participating in or the creation of a more inclusive workplace. If you are in a leadership position, mentor and support other women. If you have less seniority, join and support at a more grassroots level. Whatever your level of seniority, let your voice be heard.
4. Find sources of affirmation - internal and external. Systemic change takes time, and in the meanwhile, you need to take care of yourself. Shifting from negative self-talk to affirmation can be very helpful. Be a source of your own encouragement. In addition, seek out networks and affinity groups that can provide validation and support. You may need to look outside your function or even your organization.
Seeking out such connections and contributing to a more inclusive environment can help provide a sense of belongingness and cultivate what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “somebodiness” in yourself and others. Powerful antidotes.