The Confidence Gap: How Imposter Syndrome disproportionately affects women

by Gaby Gramont

Imposter syndrome

The good old Imposter Syndrome. A phenomenon that is, unfortunately, no stranger to many of us. Plenty of folks have had their own experience with it, whether they were accepted into a school that they thought was “too good for them” or they found themselves in a job that they believed they were not capable of doing.  Situations like these make us feel like imposters who at any moment will be “caught” and exposed for who we actually are. 

Put simply, the Imposter Syndrome is a feeling of fraud and doubt of one’s skills and abilities. It is typical for people who suffer from this syndrome to feel unworthy of their achievements, attributing their successes to “luck” or other circumstantial factors. They struggle to internalize their own successes, despite receiving external validation. The concept was first brought up in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. They studied 150 high-achieving women in the US, all of whom had been formally recognized for their professional successes by colleagues and had achieved high academic accomplishments through degrees earned and standardized test scores. The researchers found that despite all the evidence of external validation of their personal success, the participants struggled to acknowledge their successes internally. 

So why do high-achieving individuals have a hard time accepting their own successes and capabilities? It can be easily explained by the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a cognitive bias. This effect explains that when presented with a task, people with lower abilities at that task will tend to overestimate their performance while people with higher abilities at the same task will underestimate it. In other words, those who least should be questioning themselves ARE, and those who really ought to be questioning themselves more are not. 

The female imposter

If you feel alone, don’t. Reportedly 70% of people will experience this phenomenon in their lifetimes (American Psychological Association.) What’s more, many high-achieving famous women, such as Michelle Obama and Tina Fey, have confessed to experiencing the Imposter Syndrome.

Although anyone can experience this phenomenon, there certainly are societal and institutionalized factors that impact women at disproportionate rates, particularly those of color (BBC.)

A study by Cornell found that men tend to overestimate their abilities and performance while women underestimate them (The Atlantic.) This is a problem that is pointed out by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Gap. They explain: “Success as it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. The natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back.” This means that women are doing themselves a huge disservice in their careers by preserving these self-doubts and struggling with their lack of confidence. 

One study found that women won’t apply to a position unless they feel they meet 90% of the qualifications, while for men the statistic is 50%. An internal report conducted at Hewlett Packard found that men applied for a promotion when they met only 60% of the qualifications while women only applied if they met 100% (Forbes.) In other words, women aren’t going after opportunities unless they feel completely qualified or even over-qualified. 

Women often experience a crippling amount of work-related anxiety that men do not. Why? This is known as the Confidence Gap. Feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt in men, particularly white men, often go away due to validation received over the years. Expert in the Imposter Syndrome, Valerie Young, explains that “The more people who look or sound like you, the more confident you feel. And conversely, the fewer people who look or sound like you, it can and does for many people impact their confidence.” There are more men in higher-up positions, hence there are more role models for them to look up to and identify with. 

So what can women (and men) who feel inadequate at the workplace do about Imposter Syndrome?

How to deal with it:

  1. Identify and label the feeling.
    By being able to put your finger on and classify self-doubt for what it really is, you have already made a big step. If you realize that this is a very common problem that many people face in their lives, it will help you feel less alienated and shake the “what’s wrong with me?” feeling.
  2. Recognize and take inventory of your talents.
    It’s easy to focus on what you’re missing or the areas that you don’t particularly excel at. But what about the areas where you ARE qualified in? What about the other spectacular skills you possess? 
  3. Think to yourself: Am I really that talented an actor/actress to fool all these people?
    It’s easy to think that we’re just fooling our way up the ladder, or that we continuously are “frauding” people and just waiting to be exposed. But think about it – how good of an actor/actress can you truly be to fool a hiring manager, an institution, or a company? If you are, give yourself an Oscar. 
  4. Have open conversations with mentors who you trust and admire.
    As we’ve established, most people have probably dealt with this problem at one point or another, so chances are, someone who you look up to has a whole lot to say about it! 

Additionally, it’s important to recognize the systematic oppression in which this issue is rooted. As discussed above, consistent underrepresentation of women and people of color in positions of leadership can create a sense of inadequacy and more importantly, a sense of not belonging

This is a vicious cycle for members of historically oppressed groups–the more underrepresented they feel, the less likely they are to believe in their own ability to ascend to higher leadership positions. Without imposter syndrome holding them back from more visible leadership positions, future members of that same group can identify with other high achieving individuals who look like them and thus benefit from a sense of belonging and empowerment. 

At one point or another, most of us are bound to run into the well-known imposter syndrome during our careers. Whether due to our own self-doubt, lack of representation or something else, it can be difficult to address head-on. Don’t be afraid to open up about it and seek help from colleagues, mentors and friends. Remember: You got this!

Posted in CandidatesProfessional Development