You’re Not an Imposter—But You Might Feel Like One
Does this sound familiar?
You sit in your cubical at your new job, staring at your computer screen, trying to give yourself a mental therapy session before the status meeting in nine minutes. The unsettling combination of constantly feeling both overqualified and underqualified in your job is giving you a complex that you’ve never experienced before.
You feel overqualified because this work is actually pretty easy. You’re given placeholder text for different content on the bank’s website and apps, and you edit that text to sound articulate and in line with the company’s brand. On occasion, you even get to write a little blurb to explain a concept, like savings account interest or overdraft fees. It’s not exactly rocket science, and you’re doing fine at it. Your manager seems to like you, and you’ve made a few friends. You and your coworkers eat lunch together and critique the soft drink selection, as well as the wardrobe choices of a few more interestingly dressed executives.
And Feeling Underqualified
At the same time, you feel underqualified. You often find yourself sitting in meetings and feeling embarrassed for even being there because you don’t know what value you bring to the table. Everyone around you appears to be brilliant: they banter, throw big ideas out there, and reference case studies and experiences you’ve never heard of.
This feeling of being out of place—as though you accidentally walked into a planning meeting for an aircraft carrier instead of the weekly user experience review—is only exacerbated by the fact that when you try to pipe up and say something, no one seems to notice. Someone with a louder voice will start talking as though your quiet words were only in your head. Or if you do get the words out, the next comment won’t be in response to yours. And then, on occasion, someone else says the same thing you just did, and everyone wholeheartedly agrees with them. It makes you feel invisible.
What’s really going on?
If this experience rings a bell, you might be experiencing imposter syndrome: a common feeling of chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override feelings of success and competence. While everyone is subject to this experience (an eye-popping 70% of the U.S. population experiences imposter syndrome at some point), women are often hit by it harder.
Why is this happening?
There are several reasons why women experience imposter syndrome in the workplace. Knowing what is causing it can help give you the power to move past it.
The disconnect between how difficult a task appears to be—and how difficult it actually is—can cause imposter syndrome.
For example, if there’s a perception that getting a computer science certificate is grueling and yet a student breezes through the program, the student might feel as though she’s tricked everyone with her accomplishment.
Now, imagine that this student is a black woman. She’s internalized biases about what she is and isn’t good at for her entire life. There have been plenty of studies revealing biases in the workplace. For instance, people wrongly believe that women are less competent than men. Studies show that women of color are hurt by biases and less likely to get job interviews. Biases create the false belief that women have subpar abilities. The internalization of these biases can make women think that their accomplishments—such as the aforementioned computer science certificate—should have been harder to attain. And this drives imposter syndrome.
There’s a direct correlation between people who experience acute imposter syndrome and those who experience harsh microaggressions—comments or actions in day-to-day life that target marginalized groups. This makes sense, since many microaggressions hit on the same doubts that drive imposter syndrome.
For example, someone might automatically assume a woman holds a lower-level job or isn’t competent in her area of expertise. When others are subtly surfacing doubts about your skills or status, these small acts can add up to an escalated sense of imposter syndrome.
Lack of Representation:
Women who suffer from imposter syndrome are often scared of being “found out” and exposed for not being as capable as they appear to be. This drives a need to fit in—and to avoid saying or doing anything that will get them noticed.
It’s very similar to the feeling of being the “only one in the room.” When employees don’t see coworkers who look like them, or who hold the same identity, feelings of imposter syndrome become magnified. With recent data from McKinsey and Lean In revealing that women make up 19 percent of C-suites, and women of color make up only 4 percent of C-suites, it’s not surprising that we continue to feel like imposters no matter how high we climb in our careers.
Take Back Your Power
Once you understand some of the reasons for experiencing imposter syndrome, you can start to move past this debilitating feeling. Remember, there’s a reason you are in the room, in the conversation, or at the table. You have valuable perspectives and expertise to share. Acknowledge the systemic issues that have exacerbated this feeling for you, take a deep breath, and blaze your own trail.
This guest post was authored by Rebekah Bastian
Rebekah Bastian is the author of the first interactive choose-your-own story for millennial and Gen Z women. “Blaze Your Own Trail: An Interactive Guide to Navigating Life with Confidence, Solidarity, and Compassion,” February 2020 . Rebekah is an author, mentor, mother, vice president at Zillow Group, and CEO of OwnTrail.com. She speaks and writes on the complex life paths of women and creating social impact through technology. Learn more at owntrail.com.