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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

Fraudulence Unveiled: A Dive into the Influence of Imposter Syndrome on Women

Exploring the roots, ramifications, and ongoing debates surrounding the silent struggle that has shaped the careers of women for centuries.
While it may not be obvious to those around you, feelings of fraudulence or inadequacy envelop and overtake millions of people across the globe, no matter how much it may seem out of line with their accomplishments. (Image Credit: IsabellaMont, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

In the early seventies, as an assistant professor at Oberlin College, Pauline R. Clance, kept hearing female students confessing experiences that reminded her of her own. These students were sure that they had failed exams, even if they always did well. They were convinced that they had been admitted because their had either been an error on their test scores or that they had fooled authority figures into thinking that they were smarter than they actually were. Clance began comparing notes with one of her colleagues, Suzanne Imes, who had also continuously felt like a fraud.

Both women had come to a similar conclusion: despite continuous accomplishments in both social and academic settings, feelings of anxiety surrounding phoniness always seemed to persist. In hopes of seeing that these experiences expanded to other women besides themselves, Clance and Imes set up a seminar with female students at Oberlin, encouraging them to share any similar experiences they may have had. Slowly, the women began to confess that they had also felt like frauds among their brilliant classmates, who always seemed to effortlessly belong. With confirmation of this phenomenon, Clance and Imes started referring to these observations as “the imposter phenomenon,” more commonly known as imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome affects everyone. At some point, an estimated 70% of people feel like imposters (in that they feel undeserving of success). For Long before Clance and Imes labelled this, women however, the burden is much heavier. This disparity is so prevalent that the word “imposter” has also been granted special feminized forms — “impostrix” and  “impostress” — since the 1600s. 

Not only do women perpetually suffer the ongoing and self-imposed doubt of feeling like an imposter, but societal forces and stereotypes often cause them to second-guess their abilities as well as reinforce their negative self-perceptions. For women, these feelings of imposterism can even create significant professional and educational barriers that threaten success. 

Clance and Imes spent the following five years after their initial labeling of the newfound phenomenon talking to hundreds of “successful” women, including professors, doctors, and lawyers. They recorded their findings in a paper entitled ‘The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.’ In the article, they confirmed that women in their sample were particularly prone to “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness,” living with the persistent fear that some “significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors.” 

These findings have been emphasized and further supported in the fifty years since Clance and Imes’ publishing. An internal study by Hewlett Packard reportedly found that men apply to jobs when they only meet about 60% of the qualifications, while women tend to apply only if they meet 100%. 

This hesitancy is not without reason. Women have been proven to encounter fewer promotional opportunities even when applications are not needed. This means fewer workplace role models are present to encourage and mentor a surge in the possibility of future generations of female leaders. 

The cycle that imposter syndrome produces in its victims is incessant. Clance and Imes characterize the phenomenon as something that embeds itself young: either women had a sibling who had been identified as the “intelligent one” or they themselves had been identified as superior “in every way – intellect, personality, appearance, and talent.” 

In the first group, women were driven to find validation to make up for whatever they did not receive at home, but end up doubting whatever success comes their way. Those in the latter suffer a feeling of disconnect in not meeting the high expectation of the unrealistic faith set in place at a young age with the failing that life will inevitably bring, even more likely brought upon by the disadvantages presented to women in society.

In both cases, the crisis seems to come from the disconnect between messages received at home and those actually experienced in the real world. From here, the downward spiral is swift. The sense of impending doom that roots itself in many women inspires a type of frenzied dedication and hard work. While there is a feeling of short-lived gratification — expressing more relief than actual fulfillment — it is quickly followed by a return of the familiar convocation that failure is inevitable. 

Clance and Imes describe the sensation in some women that failure is so unavoidable that it must simply be anticipated instead. This ultimately causes one to hide their own opinions in fear that they only have the potential to be seen as stupid. One may seek the approval of a mentor (rarely attained due to the lack of female role models in higher corporate positions) but then believe the relationship has only been secured because of charm, hating herself for even needing this validation, exacerbating feelings of intellectual phoniness. 

Even repeated successes do not break this harsh cycle. All of these hectic efforts and calculations directed into preventing a sense of inadequacy just reinforce the belief in a fraudulent version of oneself. 

Dr. Valerie Young, internationally-recognized expert on impostor syndrome and co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute, emphasizes this theme, noting that “Success has actually been proven to fuel imposter syndrome. Let’s just say all these barriers against women were broken down. Success would be much easier to obtain, but feelings of imposter syndrome just continue to take course, regardless.” 

Young recalls meeting with people of the highest levels of success — doctors, government officials, and CEOs — who indicate strong feelings of imposter syndrome. She emphasized that a common misconception revolves around the idea that one feels like an imposter in spite of success, when, a lot of the time, it is actually because of it. 

“When you have achieved more, there is farther to fall; there’s more scrutiny; there’s more expectations,” said Young. 

Almost fifty years after Clance and Imes’ collaboration, another pair of women, Rochika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey, wrote an article fiercely pushing back on initial imposterism ideas. In ‘Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome,’ published in the Harvard Business Review in 2020, the two women argued that in labeling the crisis of self-confidence suffered by many women as a “syndrome” or “phenomenon,” we are failing to recognize the true obstacles facing women in a professional setting, especially women of color. The article argues that “imposter syndrome” wrongly labels a systemic issue as an issue that women should strive to fix, noting that “imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.” 

The ideas published by these women have been controversial, and many experts see the publication as oversimplifying the problem. “They’re absolutely right that if anyone is not looking at impostors in part through the societal lens, then I think you’re being negligent,” said Dr. Young. 

However, most psychologists are not looking at the problem through a societal lens. A common flaw pointed out in Tulshyan and Burey’s study revolved around feelings of imposterism in more creative or STEM fields, as well as family settings. “So regarding that article, while I agree with its argument that you have to look at societal factors, it’s not the only factor,” said Young. 

While imposter syndrome is something that primarily affects women, there are a significant number of men who are impacted by the phenomenon, making it impossible to completely disregard impostorism as something that is only taking over and diminishing what should be labeled as sexism. 

As men began to enter the discussion spheres of imposter syndrome — after Clance and Imes initial findings — and some began to relate to the descriptions of imposterism, a peculiar change began to take place: imposter syndrome should be something that is embraced instead of pushed away, as it can fuel further motivation and success. The argument here is that since one will most likely feel like an imposter in a new learning setting, imposterism is hereby associated with hard work and advances in learning, making it a net positive. While perhaps this correlation is correct, the thought that you have to feel inadequate to learn puts one down a slippery slope. 

“I’ve been studying this for forty years, and I’ve never once heard a woman say, ‘I think I’m going to keep my imposter feelings because it makes me humble,’ or ‘I think I’m going to continue to struggle with confidence because it keeps me humble,’” said Young. 

A study done by Real Life Resilience shows that imposter syndrome does tend to motivate men to work harder in an attempt to prove themselves, but women are less likely to be propelled by this self doubt due to existing obstacles facing women in the workplace. 

While imposter syndrome may seem to make up a harsh, never ending cycle of feelings of inadequacy and self doubt, there is a solution of becoming what many experts refer to as a humble realist. In this new role, someone who may have once worked hard for their success but still experienced feelings of self doubt has now transferred to more realistic expectations of competence and constructive criticism, but is still truly humble regarding any accomplishments. 

According to Dr. Young, the first step in transferring from one mindset to another is for one to become aware that there is even another way to look at how successes should be defined and to realize that there is even a label for these ongoing feelings of inadequacy. Next, one must be able to develop a healthy response to failure and mistakes, realizing that you can be disappointed, but it should also be able to fuel you just as much as success would. Becoming consciously aware of identifying when you are having a detrimental thought regarding constructive feedback or a flawed choice and shifting it to thinking of how a humble realist would frame the situation instead. Finally, the most difficult step is to actually begin to manifest a new thought system into existence, acting like you believe these new thoughts, even if you do not yet believe them. “What everybody wants is to stop feeling like an imposter, but feelings are always the last to change,” said Young. 

Clance and Imes recommend particular mantras for women to say to themselves: “I am intelligent. I have learned and achieved a tremendous amount. It is all right for me to believe in my own intellectual abilities and strengths.” 

As minor as it may seem, both in the case that it is difficult to believe that these feelings of accomplishment must be repeated and practically ingrained in our minds to be believed, and the idea of repeating these simplistic phrases to ourselves in the mirror every day, they have been noted to help even the most high-achieving women actually pick up on these feelings. 

The path for women who wish to live a life free of the burdens of imposterism is long and undoubtedly draining. Yet this transformative journey has urged women across the world to redefine what success looks like. The emphasis of recognizing and challenging the normalization of imposter syndrome stands as a crucial stride toward a more inclusive professional landscape. 

“When you have achieved more, there is farther to fall; there’s more scrutiny; there’s more expectations,” said Dr. Valerie Young, internationally-recognized expert on impostor syndrome and co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute.

About the Contributor
Claire Elkin, Staff Reporter
Claire Elkin is a Copy Chief for ‘The Science Survey.’ She believes in the power of journalism and how it can shed light on topics and issues that may have never even crossed the mind of a reader. Writing has always been a passion of hers, and she hopes to continue with writing in the future, educating readers in any way that she can. Claire believes that both the beauties and the flaws of our world must be embraced, and good journalism absolutely has the power to embrace both. Despite the potential that comes with writing, when the words simply cannot be found, photojournalism can display emotions or a story in a way that journalism sometimes fails to do so. Outside of ‘The Science Survey,' Claire can be found playing guitar or reading in her free time. She loves to explore new areas, near and far, and plans to incorporate these discoveries into her writing. Claire plans on majoring in Psychology in college, but she also hopes that journalism or writing will play a role in whatever she does.