I recently participated in a fairly well attended women’s professional conference. I was pleasantly surprised at the experience and quality of the speakers, panelists, and sessions. But as the day progressed and the panelists delivered their presentations, I noticed a theme emerging in the messages from speaker after speaker. Each woman confessed to suffering from Impostor Syndrome. If you aren’t familiar with Impostor Syndrome it’s the feeling that you aren’t entirely qualified or sufficiently competent to hold your position or do your job, despite your objective qualifications, and that at any moment your boss and colleagues will discover your lack of capability. Women experience Impostor Syndrome despite their work history, professional credentials, or educational qualifications. Implicit in the concept is the idea that those feelings and impressions are misplaced and unrealistic. Paradoxically, to be a victim of Impostor Syndrome, those feelings need to be objectively erroneous. I walked away from the conference and turned to a colleague saying, “I have to start a Meetup or something for women who don’t identify as impostors; I’m starting to feel like that may be a very small group of professional women.”
While there may be many professionals, male and female, who suffer from Impostor Syndrome, it feels like a new version of a very old trick of female socialization. The classic move, as brilliantly showcased in Amy Schumer’s sketch show, is to respond to compliments by putting yourself down. It’s something that women do to keep other women from feeling inferior and to keep everyone feeling that they are on equal footing. It is an incredibly unhealthy way for women to interact with each other. I’ve been guilty of engaging in this behavior when I didn’t want to rock the boat. We learn very early on the playground that to accept a compliment is to make enemies.
Now move to present day in the world of women and work. We have writers and research telling us that women are less likely to ask for raises and promotions and the resources they need to do their jobs. We also know that despite the fact that we’ve taken over the collegiate scene, we still can’t seem to get women into many leadership positions in companies across America. And despite articles from Buzzfeed covering women struggling to engage in male behavior that benefits their own self interest, which I truly can’t even begin to understand, I get the feeling that maybe with all this awareness of how typically male behaviors are rewarded in the workplace and typically female behaviors are not, that we must be getting somewhere? Maybe we are starting to understand that some of the classic roles that women have assumed in our society are holding us back in our careers. But, then I attended this conference. And I realized, we’ve brought many of these behaviors with us into our careers. Instead of someone saying, “Oh, Sarah, your hair is so beautiful and shiny” and Sarah says, “Ugh, it’s so frizzy, I hate it, it never does what I want,” now we say “Sarah, you are so successful, how do you do it!?” and Sarah says, “I have Impostor Syndrome! I’m sure I’m totally incompetent!”
How do we break this need to be down on ourselves in order to make others feel better? We can’t set a better example of women in the workplace for our younger counterparts until we can be unapologetic about our success. I can’t speak for every other woman, and I certainly don’t claim to be some great success. I have achieved a moderate amount of success given my age and education, and I’m certainly no Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer. But I know what I am and I gladly own it. I don’t want to apologize for being an assertive woman in business, and I don’t think that other women should either. We have to stop taking responsibility for how others feel. It can be an incredibly valuable quality to have in our personal lives, and empathy is an asset in business and helps guide us to make more ethical decisions; however, we take it too far when we put ourselves down in an attempt to make others feel more comfortable. It takes conscious unlearning of “social smoothing” behaviors to change this.
Perhaps you truly have Impostor Syndrome, and if that’s the case, certainly don’t deny it for the “cause”. But I would question whether many professional women really feel like impostors, or whether they think copping to a syndrome will make their successes more accessible to men and women alike. I don’t advocate being intentionally unpleasant to make some sort of feminist point, but if we’re going to expand common perceptions of how a woman can and should behave, we need to stop coming up with subtle ways to apologize for and undermine our accomplishments. In the short-term that is sometimes going to be perceived as “brash”, “bossy”, or “pushy”. If you are a successful woman in your career you have probably encountered these words at some point. In the long-term, hopefully by refusing to undermine ourselves and other women, we can change the broader perception of strong, assertive, successful women.