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Fact Check: Impostor is Not a Scam or Conspiracy

Impostor syndrome is a scam.

Worse, it is a deliberate misogynous strategy created to hold women back.

Besides, it’s not even real.

That was the troubling and wildly inaccurate message of the 2023 commencement speech at Smith College.

I know Smith well.

The elite women’s liberal arts college is 10 miles from me and for many years I led workshops for their Women’s Executive Education Program.

After four decades in this field, I know the topic of impostor syndrome even better.

So I know you can’t talk about impostor syndrome without talking about the role systemic bias plays in fueling self-doubt.

Not only in women – but in any group on the receiving end of stereotypes about competence or intelligence.

As important as social realities are to the conversation, they are not however the only source of impostor feelings.

Plus dismissing impostor syndrome as essentially “fake news” invalidates the lived experience of countless millions of women and men – including my own.

I first learned there was a name for this, “I’m in over my head and they’re going to find out” feeling while earning my doctorate at the same school where my Mom worked as a second-shift custodian.

I was working in the pioneering area of oppression awareness education – an early forerunner of what became DEI training.

My research examined internal barriers to women’s occupational achievement. Over half of my subjects were women of color.

Unsurprisingly I found a clear link between issues of confidence and competence related not just to gender, but to race, class, and disability as well.

In 1983 I used this and other findings to design the first training intervention for impostor syndrome.

Since then I’ve spoken on this topic to over half a million people worldwide.

I learned about the challenges unique to women in tech from speaking at companies like Google, Microsoft, Intel, Facebook, IBM, Cisco, and SAP.

It’s also how I learned about an impactful organization called Girls Who Code which seeks to close the gender gap in tech.

However, I didn’t know its founder Reshma Saujani until her Smith commencement speech.

Saujani’s best-selling book, Brave Not Perfect urges women to embrace imperfection and live bolder lives.

And her TED Talk on the same subject has been viewed six million times.

Although I have the utmost respect for Saujani’s work and agree with some points, key elements of this speech are deeply flawed.

Accuracy Matters 

For starters, Saujani misstates the meaning of the term impostor syndrome itself telling graduating seniors that “[impostor syndrome tells us that] maybe there’s something wrong with you; that impostor syndrome is grounded in actual deficiency.”

Adding that impostor syndrome is “based on the premise that we’re the problem. That if we feel underqualified it’s because we are. That if we worry that we don’t have what it takes, it’s because we don’t.”

The opposite is true on both counts.

Impostor syndrome describes the difficulty people have internalizing their actual accomplishments and abilities.

What’s more, it’s based entirely on the fact that we are indeed more intelligent, capable, and qualified than we give ourselves credit for.

In addition, the central argument that impostor syndrome is a misogynous strategy created to hold women back ignores the vast research involving men.

Failure to consider impostor syndrome among men did two things.

First, it discounted the experience of male faculty, staff, or family members in attendance who do identify.

Second, it effectively reinforced the notion that impostor syndrome is solely a female issue.

 

The Conspiracy

To make her case Saujani spent a significant amount of time likening impostor syndrome to something called bicycle face – a bizarre 19th-century misogynist medical diagnosis male doctors made up to discourage women from taking up riding.

The independence this new mode of transportation offered was so threatening to some in the male medical establishment that they warned of all sorts of ill effects of bike riding on women’s health – and appearance.

Like bicycle face, Saujani said, “impostor syndrome is rooted in misogyny” adding that “both are strategies to hold women back” warning women to “not take the bait.”

The Unanswered Question

It’s obvious who was scaring women into not breaking with 19th-century sexist norms – and why.

But who exactly is behind this alleged plot to use impostor syndrome as a device to impede female progress?

After all, concepts don’t have agency, only people do.

Are the misogynistic culprits Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes themselves?

After all, the entire conversation began when the two clinical psychologists (and feminists) coined the term impostor phenomenon to describe what they were hearing from white female students who sought out psychotherapy or joined a personal growth group.

Women who, “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments… persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Or is it the scores of researchers who would follow?

Researchers in business, psychology, nursing, education, and other fields from universities in India, Malaysia, Saudia Arabia, Korea, Brazil, Austria, Canada, Iran, the U.S, Nigeria, Peru, Australia, and elsewhere who’ve conducted empirical studies with PhD students, executives, entrepreneurs, professors, marketers, physicians, librarians, engineers, dental students, women, people of color, first-generation students, and countless other groups?

What about Dr. Kevin Cokley, Diversity and Social Transformation professor and professor of psychology at the University of Michigan known for his extensive research on racialized impostor phenomenon?

Or could it be the 27 researchers and psychologists (or in my case, one of only two non-academics/non-psychologists) whom Cokley and the American Psychological Association asked to contribute to The Impostor Phenomenon: Psychological Research, Theory, and Intervention?

Perhaps, the bigger question is what possible motivation would any of these people have to engage in a misogynist scheme to hold women – or anyone – back?

Judging from the overwhelmingly positive response to Saujani’s message on social media, few seem curious to know.

Facts Matter

The speech cited two examples of historical evidence to make the case that “impostor syndrome was a reaction to women’s progress.”

The emergence of the impostor phenomenon as a concept was alleged to have coincided with the passage of Title IX – a time when Saujani said “women started going to college” and it would gain traction when Roe v. Wade was decided.

History is full of legitimate examples of backlash to social progress. That’s not the case here.

Fact: The term impostor phenomenon did not even appear until 1978.

A full six years after the passage of the 1972 law U.S. that prohibited discrimination based on sex in education programs that receive federal financial assistance known as Title IX and five years after the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision ensuring a woman’s right to an abortion.

In other words, conspiratorially or historically, there is no there there.

Impostor syndrome is not as the speaker insists just “two made-up words on a page.”

It is a heavily researched topic shown to impact both women and men as well as Hispanic, indigenous, Black, Asian, White, and brown populations in the US and internationally.

As concerning as Saujani’s message was, there are plenty of places where we agree. Most importantly…

We Want the Same Thing

On the commitment to advance women and girls and to eliminate systemic bias in all its forms, Saujani and I are on the same team.

I also share her view that impostor syndrome is not inevitable.

It’s why I’ve been at the forefront of creating effective tools to help people avoid it altogether.

And if normal impostor feelings do happen — regardless of whether the primary source is systemic bias or one of at least six other potential sources – there are tools we can use to talk ourselves or others down more quickly.

I agree too that it’s perfectly normal to feel like you don’t fit in when you don’t and to experience the pressure of having to represent your entire group.

It’s why when people like Michelle Obama talk about their impostor feelings we need to flip the question from, “Why do I feel like an impostor?” to “How could I (or others) not?”

It’s also true that despite the often-used term “syndrome,” it is not – nor has it ever been – considered a psychologically diagnosable condition.

And Saujani is right when she says discomfort is a normal human reaction.

Indeed, part of unlearning impostor syndrome is knowing that a certain amount of fear and self-doubt is part of the achievement journey.

Finally, I wholeheartedly agree with Saujani that a lack of representation, belonging, and systemic bias can and do contribute to impostor feelings.

The overwhelmingly positive response to this speech speaks to both legitimate concerns about how the topic has been over-psychologized and to a hunger for more focus on societal sources of impostor syndrome.

It’s why 40 years ago I made the case that impostor syndrome must be viewed in the context of race, gender, class, and disability.

And why two decades ago I expanded my work to address the relationship between impostor syndrome and competence bias based on age and language.

Words Have Consequences

Unfortunately, this widely shared misrepresentation of impostor syndrome as a “misogynist scheme” contributed to a tsunami of social media posts railing against the concept.

Posts intent on denying the reality of others’ lived experience – and quite possibly one’s own.

Misinformation and gaslighting matters because the consequences are all too real.

Every day I see:

  • bright students who drop out of school, burnout, or otherwise fail to achieve their full potential
  • talented creatives who fail to pursue or promote their work
  • aspiring entrepreneurs who never start or scale their businesses
  • capable people who don’t ask questions for fear of “sounding stupid”
  • talented people who don’t throw their hat into the ring for a promotion or run for elected office, who don’t pursue more challenging opportunities that could benefit them academically, professionally, and financially

And much of it is due to the needless and very real form of self-doubt known as impostor syndrome.

Systemic bias is real. But impostor syndrome is not some sexist scheme.

We all lose when inaccurate information about something as consequential as impostor syndrome goes unchallenged.

We owe it to those we lead, manage, coach, teach, or parent to get it right.

VALERIE YOUNG is a global thought leader on impostor syndrome and co-founder of Impostor Syndrome Institute. In 1983 she designed the first training intervention to impostor syndrome and has since delivered her Rethinking Impostor Syndrome™ program to over half a million people around the world at such diverse organizations as Pfizer, Google, JP Morgan, NASA, and the National Cancer Institute and at over 100 universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Oxford.

Valerie earned her doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was the founding coordinator of the Social Justice Education program, a forerunner to today’s DE&I training. Although her early research focused on professional women—over half of whom were women of color—much of the original findings have proven applicable to anyone with impostor feelings. Her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: And Men, Why Capable People Suffer from Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It has been reprinted in six languages.

Click here now to learn how you can bring Valerie in to speak at your organization.

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