• Fri, 25, Oct, 2019 - 5:00:AM

You're not an impostor

Even if you feel like you are. The term ‘impostor syndrome’ is increasingly used to describe a situation where despite someone’s achievements, that person feels (irrationally) that they are not good enough for their role. It’s when success feels like a lie. It can be motivated by gender, and is most often used in that sense, but also applies equally to class or race. Basically, it is used to describe anyone who feels inferior in their work environment.

Impostor syndrome was first identified in 1978. A study, by Clance and Imes, was entitled, ‘The Impostor Phenomenon Among High Achieving Women’ and it found that women who succeed doubt their own competence, despite – and even because of – the external evidence. The women in the study believed that they were frauds, and someone was going to find out about it, and then their career would come crashing down around them. If that sounds familiar, you might be suffering from it.

Although the 1978 study found the syndrome existed, no one did anything to… you know… change workplaces or address the problem. And now, with the resurgence in the term’s popularity, it’s become pretty clear that a lot of people feel like impostors in their positions, just like the women in the study.

Impostor syndrome is that little voice saying, “You shouldn’t be here. You’re not good enough. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.” It’s how people rationalise disadvantages that are systemic and out of their control. “The mediocre white guy got promoted over me, but that’s okay, because he’s better than me.” It’s the myth that you are losing the race, when really you’ve run further and had fewer water breaks.

As with much advice targeted towards women in business, the solutions are built on a kind of ‘lean in’ and get-over-your-own-problems philosophy. A lot of conventional advice about impostor syndrome tells women that it’s something that is just in their heads, that they can overcome if they just forget about it and ‘realise their own worth’. Even the word syndrome itself implies that the sensation of being an impostor is internal, divorced from the external context of the workplace. And that’s just not true.

Although the study’s focus lends itself to corporate self-help books, the people affected are not just the high achieving American women of the original study. Impostor syndrome is probably an internal response to a working environment that clearly has not changed enough since the 70s. People who are not white men feel like impostors because the workplace wasn’t built for them. That needs to change. When people who are different, whether that’s because of race or gender or class, merge into that environment, it’s no wonder that they feel inferior.

Impostor syndrome is produced by a workplace environment that hasn’t changed to accommodate a diverse range of people. It’s an environment that disadvantages anyone who is different. Solutions need to address the cause of the problem, which is not ‘in your head’. Impostor syndrome should be viewed as the product of a system, rather than a personal problem.


  • Impostor Syndrome /
  • Business /
  • Discrimination /
  • Bias /
  • Work /
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