“Imposter syndrome” is a popular term on the internet lately, though it has been around since the late 1970s. Georgia State University psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “imposter phenomenon” in their 1978 study on high-achieving women who felt as though their success was not attributed to their own abilities.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is experienced by people “who believe that they are undeserving of their achievements and the high esteem in which they are, in fact, generally held.” While it is normal to occasionally feel self-doubt, individuals experiencing imposter syndrome constantly feel undeserving of their job, their position, education or experience—despite having success. It occurs most prevalently among high-achieving women holding positions of authority, especially women of racial and ethnic minority and those of the LGBTQ+ community. However, it can occur for anyone no matter their gender, intelligence or performance. About 70% of people experience this condition at some point in their life, and become anxious, depressed and demotivated as a result.
Imposter syndrome exacerbates existing mental health conditions. It has been linked to perfectionistic and self-effacing character traits, having a lack of role models in the workplace, as well as strained relationships and high expectations—often learned during childhood. Sexism, classism, prejudice and racism also play major parts.
Imposter Syndrome and Gender Bias
Since most reported cases of imposter syndrome are women, how does gender factor in? While social norms vary across cultures, women’s roles have largely been domestic throughout time. This dynamic changed slowly during the Second World War, when women staffed the factories while men were away on the front. In the 1960s, the US saw a surge of women entering the workforce, but traditional gender roles remained and were slow to adapt to the change. Pay inequality and lack of flexibility caused great stirs among women organizations and the union, resulting in several bills that made unequal pay unlawful.
Traditionally masculine fields like engineering and computer science are still mostly dominated by men—only 21% of engineering majors and 19% of computer science majors today are women. Those that do defy the stereotypes often feel as if they don’t fit in and are singled out.
Women holding positions of authority especially also report feeling more likely to be perceived as aggressive in situations where men would be perceived as being assertive and showing leadership. Lean In, a US organization that focuses on gender bias in the workplace, reports that men hold 62 percent of manager-level positions while women hold about 38 percent.
Safer, More Inclusive Spaces
The American Psychological Association and several other leading non-profit organizations formed the Mental Health in the Workplace initiative in 2022, which includes more than 150 groups—including nonprofit companies, governmental organizations and universities that have joined the effort in reshaping how employers approach mental wellness and equality at work.
This initiative tackles data derived from psychological research and insight to provide safer communities and well-being in the workplace—including training management in providing safe spaces and offering flexible schedules, listening to the needs of employees to improve the workflow, and reshaping policies to reflect diversity, a sense of inclusion and equity.
This includes imposter syndrome, which would be addressed at the source and not just as a mental health condition—including interviewing employees regarding their experiences with chronic underrepresentation, microaggressions and uncredited work efforts—additionally, managers may offer access to a community of non-judgmental peers. The Striving for mental health in the workplace webpage has extensive tips on how to help support mental health of employees.
The University of Texas Permian Basin is committed to the emotional well-being of its students, faculty and staff and offers a mental wellness program to provide a safe and supportive environment for everyone on campus and online.
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