The Imposter Syndrome: Why Many Women Fail To Take Credit For Success

by Liz Raffa

It’s no secret that gender equality, while having improved leaps and bounds throughout the past decades, has yet to catch up to our modern understanding of both the meaning of “gender” and “equality.”

The recent #HeForShe campaign, spurred by Emma Watson’s UN speech, has proven that discussion about women’s roles in society is no longer a female-only dialogue; men are part of the solution, too.

However, in this article, I will focus primarily on women from a fellow woman’s perspective. If you’re a man reading this, that’s great, too.

Ladies, close your eyes. Imagine yourself getting a promotion from a job you’ve held for years. Your boss congratulates you, everyone claps, you smile and say… what?

You can fill in the blank with all the things you would attribute your success to. Research shows that if you’re anything like the majority of women, you’ll finish the sentence by crediting others for helping you or luck for setting up your opportunities.

This is opposed to most men, who are more than willing to take full credit for their success as something they earned and are worthy of having.

This is not a knock on men, and it is not to say that every single man or woman out there will fall into one of these categories. However, it is to say that there's a serious issue with the general mentality of women who achieve success and believe it to be a “mistake.”

Women are much more likely to experience what Sheryl Sandberg calls “the imposter syndrome” in her book, "Lean In." Described as "the phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt," Sandberg explains what having the impostor syndrome feels like.

The syndrome entails feeling as though your successes are due to accident or luck. You go throughout life having both small and large successes, but each time something good happens, you feel as though something else orchestrated you being there.

It’s the unshakable feeling that you are there by mistake, and that at some point, someone will discover that you don’t belong and will expose you.

Maybe you just read that description and finally felt able to put to words what you have always felt.

You are not alone.

Countless successful men and women have vocalized this syndrome, from celebrities to artists to politicians.

Sheryl Sandberg quotes Tina Fey’s interview with a British newspaper saying,

"The beauty of the impostor syndrome is you vacillate between extreme egomania, and a complete feeling of: ‘I’m a fraud! Oh god, they’re on to me! I’m a fraud!’ "So you just try to ride the egomania when it comes and enjoy it, and then slide through the idea of fraud. Seriously, I’ve just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it."

Fortunately, much in line with the #HeForShe movement, men are a huge part of the solution. Not only are they capable of feeling this way themselves, but they are also impactful in changing the norm for their counterparts.

Recently, the NBA produced the #LeanInTogether ad that encouraged men to “help women aim high,” and show support for them in their careers.

Neil Gaiman addressed the impostor syndrome in his keynote address to the University of Arts in 2012, saying that his wife had christened it as the “fraud police.”

Gaiman articulated:

"The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you."

Even before I had heard of the impostor syndrome, I felt it. Not only did I feel I was experiencing it, but I also heard it in the language of women around me.

Being on a college campus, I was surrounded by successful young women who were making a name for themselves in their career fields.

Yet, every time I spoke to another woman about something she had recently done well, her verbiage accredited something outside of herself. Whether it was luck, chance or other people, rarely did I hear a woman take credit for her success.

I once spoke to a young lady about her success as part of a school newspaper and taking initiative to network with people she considered far above her status-wise.

She revealed to me that she while no one else could be credited to her initiative, she often had this sense that she was going to be exposed for going out of her comfort zone, as if someone would suddenly realize she wasn’t “supposed” to be doing well.

Herein lies the essence of why self-doubt and the impostor syndrome is detrimental to the struggle for gender equality in the work force.

As long the feeling of unworthiness for themselves plagues women, they will create self-fulfilling prophecies in perpetuating the notion that women are not supposed to be as successful as men.

Here is the truth: We are all “supposed to” and “not supposed to” be successful.

We are all “supposed to” and “not supposed to” fall into cookie-cutter roles. Our ability to surpass what we are supposed to and not supposed to do is far more powerful than a societal norm, or the impostor syndrome.

So, the bottom line is that if you do feel this way, you are not alone. You are not suffering from an illness, but you are experiencing the symptoms of a long-lasting side effect of past gender inequality.

And, while you may feel the need to be a chameleon in the world, fight the urge to blend in and sit back. Take charge, feel good about it and lean in.