Never A Fraud: Combating Imposter Phenomenon

As a disabled woman of color, I have had to jump many a personal and professional hurdle to gain admission into my current program. Even without a disability, being a matriculated graduate student is an accomplishment. However, sometimes I wonder if I have truly earned my place among my peers. The insecurity is confusing, and if that weren’t enough, the battle to internalize my achievements is exhausting and demoralizing. I feel like an imposter unworthy of the position I had worked for. Were my entrance essays that good? Did I get special consideration because I am a woman? Or maybe I was admitted because I had a disability?

This feeling is common enough to have a name: Imposter phenomenon.

Imposter phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome, was first identified by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 paper, The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. Clance and Imes report that woman with imposter phenomenon underplay their own intelligence and seek outside approval in self-destructive ways because they don’t believe in their own abilities. Imposter phenomenon is prevalent especially among high-achieving women because women are more likely to attribute success to outside causes and failures to themselves while men do the opposite.

In 2010, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg updated the idea of imposter phenomenon with her TED talk “Why we have too few women leaders” and in her follow-up book Lean In. Sandburg outlines how imposter phenomenon still exists for women over 30 years later because women still don’t believe in their own successes and remove themselves from the running before they are ready. High-profile women still confess to feeling like frauds. Women are still less likely to advocate for themselves. There is still a lack of women in high-powered government and business positions.

Imposter phenomenon still exists for women today. Personally, I feel the pressure triply so as a disabled woman of color. All the insecurities about gender can be transferred to race or ability. More, my disability is a cognitive disability, invisible to the outside eyes and sometimes forgotten even by me. I do not believe in my own ability because my ability is diminished. There is a very real reason for me not to believe in myself.

But the truth is that I made it. So I must have done something right.

And if you got that job, published that paper, juggled work and relationships, you are doing it right, too.

No matter how you got to where you are, someone believed that you could do the work, and you rose to the challenge and did it. It can be tricky to believe that you’ve earned your accomplishments but believe that you did the work. You have to have done it. Even if you had help, you contributed what you did, and that is not nothing.

I agree with Clance, Imes, and Sandburg: We women have to work hard to believe in ourselves. However, I disagree that the solutions lie solely with us women. We don’t just need to build our self-confidence. We also need to challenge the status quo that undervalues our abilities and contributions. We aren’t the problem. Society believing that we are the problem is the problem. We don’t internalize our accomplishments because we are told that our accomplishments aren’t worthwhile.

So let’s start giving our work the recognition it’s due.

Let’s tell each other that we are smart, diligent, and deserving. Let’s tell others not to undervalue our work. Let’s insist that accommodations are needed because it’s an unjust world. Let’s demand respect for the work we do because we have put the work into it.

It’s still a struggle to believe that I deserve to be in my program. But I’m here for a reason and it’s because I worked for it.

Remember: You worked for it, too.

22 thoughts on “Never A Fraud: Combating Imposter Phenomenon

  1. Thank you for this. I just got a new project detail at work today, and while I am very excited for both the challenge and the opportunity to prove myself at very different tasks from what I do now, I am also scared out of my mind that I am indeed simply a fraud. This voice keeps telling me I will probably fail, and that there is a good chance I sold these people a bill of goods via my enthusiasm for their project.

    I’ll try to keep reminding myself that they chose me for a reason, I am smart and capable and competent, and I can’t let the demons telling me I’m an impostor keep me down.

    May all us professional women remember this! It is so very hard sometimes. Thank you again!

  2. Beautifully written. Whenever I feel this way, I remind myself that Maria Klawe, now the president of Harvey Mudd, does too, and ask myself: “Did they pick her name out of a hat to lead Harvey Mudd?” They didn’t pick mine out of a hat for my position either. I’m not perfect, but just like Maria I’ve earned what I have. Here’s a link to an article about Maria Klawe and imposter syndrome:

  3. Just for the record – imposter syndrome is very common among men too. In fact, every successful intelligent person (both men and women) I have ever met has had some level of imposter syndrome.

    Personally, I have found it very useful to realize that.

    • While reading about imposter syndrome, I learned that an estimated 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives. It is definitely prevalent!

      However, we need to consider the specific social factors that contribute to different groups of people. Women face imposter syndrome created from sexism, and that adds a different dimension to the phenomenon.

      • I agree with this reasoned analysis. I also think that the way women and men are “supposed” to act in the workplace means that they often respond to these internal fears differently – men may react more often to assert their authority in an aggressive way, so from the outside it seems as though they are confident (although I have known women to do this too, to cover up their insecurity). But it seems that women will more often withdraw into themselves, or not put themselves forward for future opportunities. We are sooooo conditioned to social expectations honed over several centuries!!!

  4. Fantastic piece. We need to believe we can rather than we cannot. Face the fear and do it anyhow …although scary!
    I wrote a piece on my blog recently about facing fear – would love to hear your comments on it? Thank you for a wonderful piece and for providing links!

  5. One thing I have struggled with recently is not imposter syndrome (which I agree is very common among women and men), but getting my grad advisors — I have 2 — to recognize my achievements and nominate me for awards that I would probably win. Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of praise from them during our meetings, and they have even said nice things about me to others in the field, which is great!. But then they don’t follow through and “make it official” by nominating me for awards I deserve. And we all know how awards beget awards…. So I have to sit by and watch other less deserving students win them — maddening!

    I tried talking to them (separately) about this not too long ago, and the response I got from both was along the lines of, “Oh, it just slipped my mind! Why didn’t you say something before the deadline?” So I suppose I was to guess that both of them would be negligent in this regard and ask them to nominate me? Aren’t advisors supposed to care about the success of their students?

    What I’d like to know is, how common is it in Academia for people to ask others to nominate them for stuff, including asking advisors to nominate them for awards? Do I just need to suck it up and realize that this is how the game is played? Or do my advisors simply not measure up in this regard?

    And don’t even get me started on the advisors who ask students to write their own recommendation letters. One of my advisors asked me for that last week — after working closely with me for 5 yrs!!

    • I feel your frustration! It feels like people have not followed through with their commitments. Clearly, there is something to be learned here; however, I personally don’t have the experience to answer your questions. Maybe my fellow TSW bloggers will have more insight. I suggest using the Ask TSW (link below) contact form to ask your question.

    • You mention you have 2 advisors. Could the problem -at least partly- be arising from being a shared responsibility between the two?
      I would say, go ahead, remind them about upcoming award nomination deadlines. Be your own advocate!
      Yes, there is lots of politics in academia. Much more than you would expect. Networking and advocating for yourself (or “playing the game”) is what will help you move forward.

      • Thanks for your response. One of them is clearly the main advisor; I meet much more with him. Although, officially, they share the responsibility of advising me. So I don’t think it’s what you suggest. Also, note that when I asked them about it, their response was not, “Oh, I thought X was doing that.” Neither of them just seems to care very much because this is something that does not directly advance their careers. (Even though one could argue that of course it reflects well on them if their students win awards… Basically, they don’t think it’s worth the “hassle” of having to nominate me, which would take them about 5 min.)

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