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Why I hate the term ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Enter the term ‘imposter syndrome’ into Google and you get 8million+ results. The term is ubiquitous these days and seems to pop up in most discussions about women and their confidence levels. There is research into it, papers and books written on it, programmes to combat it, and numerous articles most of which at some point position it as a female ‘problem’.


Where does the term 'imposter syndrome' come from?


The origins of the term are quite old now. Imposter Syndrome, or Imposter Phenomenon as it was first called, was originally identified by Clance & Imes in 1978 who recognised the incidence of high-achieving people feeling that their success was more due to luck than their own performance. It is often associated with the feeling of being a fraud or phony. The person feels that they are fooling the world about their true abilities which they view with less confidence than others do. They live in fear of being found out which can be anxiety-inducing. Both men and women can suffer from Imposter Syndrome, but it is highly associated with women.


Is the term 'imposter syndrome' helpful to women?


Much has been written about Imposter Syndrome mostly within the area of how to build confidence in women. I particularly dislike the term and what it represents for a number of reasons because it only serves to encourage women to question their confidence.


Syndrome is a misnomer


First, I dislike the use of the word ‘syndrome’. This suggests that it is pathological or a condition that women are prone to have. It can be hard to shift something that you believe you are ‘suffering from’ and can seriously affect a person’s sense of self-worth. Second, the idea that women need ‘fixing’ stems from this idea of a condition. Authors are now arguing against its existence, in particular, rejecting the idea that women suffer from it more than men (Tulshyan & Burey 2021).


Women don't need 'fixing'


The very notion that women have a problem that needs fixing only encourages a lack of confidence in themselves. A lack of confidence only feeds a lack of confidence. Confidence is cumulative. It is suggested that as men become more successful they become more confident, in part because their self-belief is reinforced as they see role models who look like them. It is difficult to believe in your own achievement when you look around and nobody successful looks like you. If you are a woman working in an organisational culture where success is marked by masculine traits and behaviours and you see nobody like you being successful then you are likely to question whether you match up to the model of success. This core problem is captured very well by Tulshyan & Burey (2021:3):


“Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests in both women of color and white women. Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”

What is confidence?


At the end of the day, confidence is about belief in our own capabilities. Confidence builds from the evidence you have around you of your capabilities. We all need a feedback loop that tells us that what we are doing is effective and meets the criteria for being good at our job. Feeling a fraud is about questioning our own abilities and potential success. Giving women no feedback loop and then telling them collectively that they are prone to think they are a fraud is in my view only serving to keep them out of a mindset for success.


Fix the system, not the women


So rather than spending time and energy selling books and programmes to help women stop feeling this way, we should be looking at the system that makes it difficult for them to calibrate their success. Tulshyan and Burey, (2021) advocate creating workplace cultures that are more accepting of different leadership styles. Allowing women to be their authentic selves rather than having to match up to a predominantly male leadership style is the first step in releasing their capabilities and encouraging women to believe that what they do is effective and worthwhile. It is about encouraging women to develop their own identity within the workplace and question the system they work in rather than questioning themselves. As the title of Laura Bates’ brilliant book says we should ‘Fix the System, Not The women’.


SOURCES


Bates, L. (2022) Fix The System Not The Women Simon & Schuster London.

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high-achieving women:
Dynamics and therapeutic intervention Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3),
241–247.

Tulshyan, R. &; Burey, J-A. (2021) Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome
Harvard Business Review (Digital) HBR.org (February 2021).



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