Have you ever felt like a fraud? Like you were lying to everyone about how intelligent, skilled or talented you were? Like you were severely underqualified for the job you have, despite meeting all the qualifications? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’ve probably experienced imposter syndrome. While most people can relate to feeling this way at one time or another, for women of color, the feelings are commonplace.
Harvard Business Review defines imposter syndrome as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” The term comes from a 1978 study called “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” It was conducted by two clinical psychologists, Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes. In the study, Clance and Imes surveyed 150 “highly successful women,” many of whom reported feeling like imposters only pretending to be intelligent.
While current research has shown that both men and women experience the phenomenon, it is still more prevalent among women. Imposter syndrome manifests in different ways for everyone, both in the way it feels and the effects it can have on individuals.
While some may describe it as a fleeting feeling, others may feel it constantly. In their study, Clance and Imes revealed that anxiety, depression and low self-esteem are the most common effects of long-term feelings of imposterism.
Imposter syndrome comes from a fear of underperforming or not meeting expectations one has set. However, the phenomenon often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As a result of imposter syndrome, some individuals self-sabotage by not taking on projects or vocalizing their ideas. They begin to stunt their own growth due to fear and are unable to perform their roles to the best of their abilities.
Imposter syndrome also prevents women of color from seeking better opportunities for themselves due to a fear of being unqualified. According to Harvard Business Review, women don’t apply for jobs unless they meet 100% of the qualifications. In contrast, men apply for jobs when they’ve met 60% of the qualifications.
Lack of representation, microaggressions and biases are all factors that can increase the occurrence of imposter syndrome. The three factors are widespread among women of color who exist at the intersection of race and gender, making the phenomenon more common for them.
Reema Doleh is a recent graduate from Baruch College and an employee at a Fortune 500 company; she is currently applying to law school. In her roles as a student and an employee, Doleh has faced her fair share of imposter syndrome. Doleh believes that her intersecting identities as a low-income, first-generation college student and a non-white woman have contributed to her feeling like an imposter.
“For me, imposter syndrome is feeling like you don’t belong in the space you are in or feeling like you’ve flown under the radar and you are not exactly qualified to be there and for whatever reason just landed there,” Doleh said.
If she’s feeling imposterism, Doleh finds that she is less likely to speak up and share her ideas during meetings at work due to fear of sounding “young” or “unprofessional.” She learned about imposter syndrome through a fellowship program for first-generation, low-income students called America Needs You.
“Through that experience, I realized how many students felt that way, primarily non-white students. It was interesting to me how many of us related to that feeling as the first people in our families to go to college.”
First-generation students often feel out of place in higher education, especially elite universities. In the study “Feeling Like an Imposter,” Elizabeth A. Canning, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University, discusses the effect of imposter syndrome on first-generation students.
According to the study, imposter syndrome has tangible effects on student performance, contributing to lower grades, bad attendance and increased likelihood of dropping out.
The transition to higher education has increased feelings of imposter syndrome in Diane Greg-Uanseru, a senior at Fordham University, majoring in international studies.
“When I got into Fordham University, I had a classmate tell me I only got in because I was a first-generation woman and Black. I didn’t want it to get to me but I still feel like that’s the only reason,” Greg-Uanseru said.
Being told that their accomplishments are the result of affirmative action can exacerbate feelings of imposter syndrome in Black and Latino students. Contrary to popular belief, the students who benefit the most from affirmative action are not Black and Latino applicants — they’re white women.
Greg-Uanseru described what she experiences when imposterism sets in: “The thoughts in my head are usually, ‘I shouldn’t be here,’ ‘everyone knows I don’t deserve to be here,’ ‘I’ll never succeed in the space’ and ‘I got this because I’m a minority.’”
Black women in particular experience imposter syndrome at higher levels than their female counterparts due to the intersectionality of systemic racism against Black people and sexism. A study conducted on students of color at the University of Texas at Austin found that Black students who experienced feeling like imposters reported higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Hafeezat Bishi is a Nigerian American student at Temple University and a YouTuber who regularly uploads videos to her channel, which is called As Told By Hafeezat. Bishi believes that systemic racism contributes to feelings of imposter syndrome in Black women.
“Western societies were built on the oppression of women of color, Black women especially. Black women were never supposed to amount to anything, so when we start to succeed in these spaces, there are going to be naysayers who will try to ‘put us in our place’ and tell us we are not supposed to be here,” Bishi said.
When imposter syndrome takes over, Bishi turns to her friends for affirmation and reminds herself of her own accomplishments. Despite having a support system, however, Bishi maintains that imposter syndrome does have real, adverse effects.
“People can say they don’t care what others think of them, but at the end of the day we are humans. We crave human acceptance. If there are tons of people making you feel like you don’t belong somewhere, you’re going to start believing it,” she said.
Increasing awareness of imposter syndrome has allowed many women to identify and combat it. For Doleh, celebrating her successes helps her overcome feelings of imposter syndrome. Greg-Uanseru affirms to herself that she belongs in the spaces she is in. Seeking spaces of support, such as with one’s friends or with a licensed therapist, are some other ways to overcome imposterism.
While there is a lot that can be done to combat imposter syndrome on an individual level, companies can work to make their employees, especially those who are historically underrepresented, feel more comfortable. Shifting hiring practices to include women of color and fostering environments where they feel valued are important steps.