Anxiety and Depression  |  Building Personal Resilience  |  Stigma and Discrimination

Part I: Feel Like an Imposter at Work? It’s More Common Than You Think

BY SHANE TAN

19 April 2021  |   6 min read

Are you uncomfortable with compliments or praise? Do you doubt your own abilities and accomplishments at work? In this two-part series, find out if you are experiencing imposter syndrome, and whether gender biases at your workplace may be triggering your inner critic.

A 2020 study by KPMG1 defined imposter syndrome as the inability to believe one’s success is deserved as a result of hard work, skill level or competence. Instead, success is attributed to one’s luck or merely being in the right place at the right time. Around 70 per cent2 of people will have experienced imposterism at least once in their lives.

According to the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale developed by Dr Pauline Rose Clance, an American psychology professor and leading authority on the subject, the common signs of imposter syndrome include:

  • Feeling like success is impossible
  • Feeling incompetent despite demonstrating competency
  • Fear of not meeting another person’s expectations
  • Feeling like past successes and hard work were only due to luck
  • Feeling incapable of performing at the same level every time
  • Feeling uncomfortable with receiving praise or congratulations
  • Feeling disappointed over current accomplishments
  • Feeling doubtful of successes
  • Feeling constant pressure to achieve or be better than before

Experiencing imposter syndrome can lead to a vicious cycle of stress, anxiety, low self-confidence, shame and even depression. In fact, research3 has found that feelings of being an imposter is a stronger predictor of mental health problems than is stress related to one’s minority status.

Imposter syndrome has largely been associated with women rather than men, ever since the first documentation of the phenomenon in the 1970s by a psychologist who noticed that many accomplished female students felt undeserving of their success.

A KPMG study reported that 75 per cent of high-performing executive women in the US have experienced imposter syndrome.

Despite growing diversity in society and institutions and more women occupying leadership roles, women continue to be plagued by chronic self-doubt. The KPMG study, which spans a range of industries in the US, reported that 75 per cent of high-performing executive women have experienced imposter syndrome.

As such, a sizable number of executive women in Singapore are likely to encounter this syndrome in the course of their career, especially in the finance and technology sectors, two of the highest-paying industries charting rising numbers of women in senior management positions.

The secret fears of high achievers 

That experience was familiar to Anthea Indira Ong, an executive coach and social advocate, when she was made Managing Director of the New York Institute of Finance at just 29 years old. “I felt some self-doubt being the only woman leader and youngest person in this role at this level. The strange thing is none of this prevented me from being competent or actually excelling in my role, but looking back, there was certainly the stress of being ‘outed’ that I was not good enough,” Ong recalled.

In her seven years of experience coaching leaders and managers from all over the world, Ong said most of her clients first approach her for help because they felt they could be doing better in their work, even when many of them were already accomplished in their own right. “For some, it may be imposter syndrome because they don’t think they deserve to be where they are. Most, if not all, hold varying [degrees] of self-doubt and a fear of failure.”

Feeling this way can be lonely and alienating. “Many thought they were the only ones amongst their peers, and even juniors, who felt this way,” Ong pointed out.

Workplace gender bias and imposter syndrome

Recent research4 suggests that imposter syndrome may affect as many men as women, yet it is often cited as a reason for gender inequities at the workplace.

Societal and cultural gender biases and expectations of women’s behaviour, rather than female low self-esteem, may have more to do with workplace inequalities, says Ong. “Women are called difficult or unreasonable when we demonstrate the same confidence and ambition because the rules for success and competence are decidedly written by men,” she said.

Women in the workplace are penalised5 more for demonstrating the same confidence as their male counterparts. Women leaders are often pressured to be nice and warm (normative feminine traits) but also assertive and decisive (stereotypical masculine behaviours). This creates a double bind for women aspiring to leadership as they are viewed as either competent but aggressive, or non-competent but likeable.

Navigating this tension can be a huge mental burden and a source of anxiety and stress. Instead of playing by the rules defined by an outmoded masculine playbook of competition and confrontation, “we need to blaze a different trail to success consciously and intently, and collectively,” Ong emphasised.

Next week in Part II: How to Overcome Self-Doubt, we offer tips on how leaders and individuals can work towards overcoming this syndrome.

The contributor is a Singaporean writer and journalist based in New York. Shane’s work has appeared in Esquire Singapore, Salon.com, Surface magazine, Yahoo! News, and Marie France Asia. Find Shane on Twitter at @itsShaneTan.

References

  1. KPMG LLP. (2020, October 7) KPMG Study Finds 75% Of Female Executives Across Industries Have Experienced Imposter Syndrome In Their Careers. Retrieved from:
    https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/kpmg-study-finds-75-of-female-executives-across-industries-have-experienced-imposter-syndrome-in-their-careers-301148023.html

  2. Sakulku, J., Alexander, J. (2011). The Imposter Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioural Science, 6 (1), 75-97. Retrieved from:
    https://so06.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521/pdf

  3. Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A., Martinez, M. (2013, April 8). An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved from:
    https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/j.2161-1912.2013.00029.x?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

  4. Jarrett, C. (2018, June 1). A new study claims that, under pressure, imposter syndrome hits men harder than women. The British Psychological Society Research Digest. Retrieved from:
    https://digest.bps.org.uk/2018/06/01/a-new-study-claims-that-under-pressure-imposter-syndrome-hits-men-harder-than-women/

  5. Rudman, L. A., Glock, P. (2002, December 17). Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes and Backlash Toward Agentic Women. Journey of Social Issues, 57 (4). Retrieved from:
    https://spssi.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/0022-4537.00239