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Imposter Syndrome Turns Two

It’s hard for me to believe we’re close to the two-year anniversary of the publication of my Harvard Business Review article co-authored with Jodi-Ann Burey, Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome (among HBR’s top 20 most popular and impactful articles in history!)

As one often does on anniversaries, I’m reflecting on its impact.

While I’m thrilled that the sentiments of “fix workplaces, not women’s imposter syndrome” have resonated with so many, it’s continued to remind me how difficult it is to navigate workplace cultures as women and people from other marginalized communities. Women are told over and over again that it is their responsibility to combat imposter syndrome, build confidence, and signal that they are capable leaders. But as we write in our article, “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.” Women of color particularly, are expected to constantly reestablish their presence and authority at work. This is known as “prove-it-again bias,” termed by the brilliant Joan C. Williams. As Williams writes, basically, women are expected to, “exhibit a specific blend of masculine and feminine behaviors, support her female colleagues and somehow avoid letting motherhood affect her working life at all.” Ooof.

It’s a lot to balance, especially when women can feel forced onto a narrow tightrope between being viewed as competent or likable.

Confidence and Women

One study found that the majority of women senior leaders said confidence (or lack thereof) was central to lack of progress in theirs and other women’s careers. For men? Confidence only mattered in the case of women’s career progress. Urgh! Here’s something even cringier: One of the male leaders criticized women in his workplace for lacking self-confidence, then called them aggressive and suggested they were “overcompensating for something” when they did exhibit confidence! Another criticized a woman for trying to act like an “alpha male.” He said, “She was extremely capable and if she had the confidence to match, she would have been more successful.” Can you see the double standard? Jumping through these hoops while feeling pressure to prove ourselves over and over again is exhausting, fuels overwhelm, and leads to fewer women in the workplace. Then, we too easily diagnose women with imposter syndrome or confidence issues so that we don’t have to question workplace norms and biases.

Eliminating imposter syndrome should be a key inclusive leadership priority.

If you’re interested, Jodi-Ann Burey and I wrote a followup article on the how: End Imposter Syndrome in Your Workplace. The last few years have seen many organizations racing to take the first steps to understanding DEIB, which is somewhat of a success. But inclusion is not a one-and-done fix. (If only it were that simple!) It requires intentional and sustained work to address and reduce bias, especially with regards to women’s leadership. The recent Jacinda Ardern controversy was a case in point. But while silly (sexist) headlines saw the former New Zealand Prime Minister’s resignation as an opportunity to revive tired “can women have it all” and “can women lead” tropes, I saw it as a masterclass in leadership: I’ll step back when I know I need a break, because I’ve led like a boss through a global pandemic. I don’t see any confidence issues at all – just pure, sheer, competence and leadership.


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