Its for certain I am not the only woman who feels like a fraud

‘Imposter syndrome’ afflicts female students, hinders achievement, self worth


Melina Nath, Acalanes High School

 In seventh grade, I distinctly remember walking into my first “Advanced Math” class. I noticed the isolated desks lined up in rows rather than table groups. I felt afraid to raise my hand, scared of the potential backlash I would receive for saying the wrong answer. I remember looking around the room and developing an unsettling, nagging feeling that I was the dumbest person in the class. 

   My love for math declined as the belief I needed to prove myself rose. Each test became a measure of my own self-worth. My hours spent studying became motivated by a fear of someone discovering I did not belong. 

   I am a sophomore in high school now. These feelings have not gone away.

   I discovered that I exhibit the qualities of “imposter syndrome.” Years later, I realize that the woman sitting next to me in math, female journalists I aspire to write like, and the women I look up to all feel like imposters. As isolating as it feels, imposter syndrome is a feeling that most people experience at least once in their life. 

   In today’s society, imposter syndrome remains a detrimental mindset for high-achieving women. Instead of advocating for women to block out feelings of self-doubt, we must address its causes rooted in our society.

   Psychologists define imposter syndrome as a persistent personal belief that one succeeds by mistake or coincidence rather than through hard work. Although psychologists do not consider imposter syndrome a mental illness, anxiety and depression often accompany feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem. 

   The term imposter syndrome itself implies that the individual is at fault. However, this struggle is far from a personal battle. Before telling women to ‘be more confident,’ people must acknowledge the historical role of legislation and stereotypes when examining imposter syndrome in women. 

   American Social Psychologists Kay Deaux and Tim Emswiller began early conversations around an inherent feeling of unworthiness in their book, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published in 1974. The psychologists discovered that most women believed their success came from luck and their failures from a lack of ability. In contrast, most men believed their success came from ability and their failures due to bad luck.

   This study inspired psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes to conduct their 1978 study of 150 scholarly and successful women from various fields. They discovered the vast majority of these women consistently struggled to internalize success and defined this as “The Imposter Phenomenon.” Rose Clance and Imes believed this stemmed from societal standards and family dynamics which characterize young girls as “sensitive,” “too emotional,” and ‘not as bright as their male counterparts.’ 

   The study concluded that imposter syndrome in women originates from society deeming them as not competent. A successful woman defies the beliefs of a whole society, causing them to believe they succeed by chance. 

   According to the Dutch accounting firm Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler, 75 percent of female executives experience imposter syndrome and 32 percent of women identified with imposter syndrome as they advanced in the workplace because they did not know of other women in their position.  

   Rose Clance and Imes believed that imposter syndrome only occurs in high-achieving women, which is not necessarily true; any person may feel like an imposter at some point. According to Brown University, imposter syndrome remains prominent today in historically underrepresented groups, such as people of color, first-generation immigrants, and women. 

   All people must prove they belong when getting a new job. However, women today also become responsible for disproving the “weak” and “too emotional” societal norms to be taken seriously by their employers and co-workers.

   While harmful, stereotypes may also drive women to succeed simply to defy society’s expectations. I had a male classmate ask me why I’m taking a difficult class because it may be too stressful for me. Another male classmate interrogated my friends and me about our test scores because there was “no way we did better than him.”

   Although these interactions were insignificant small-talk for the man I was talking to, they stuck with me. In these scenarios, I was determined to prove them wrong, but at what cost? The expectations women set for themselves constantly demand them to show people that they belong, and no one talks about how the constant pursuit to do so is exhausting

   Women continuously fight the battle of trying to fit into a space where they were never supposed to belong. For so long, societal norms prevented women from attending school, working certain jobs, and holding any position of power because many people believed women could never qualify for these positions. Even as women step into leadership roles today, the feeling that they don’t belong lingers. This creates the extremely high standards women have for themselves, accompanied by a fear of being discovered as incapable.

   Dr. Valarie Young, an expert on imposter syndrome, said, “Sometimes people plant the seed in our mind that perhaps we are only here because we were a diversity pick in some way, for example, ‘They were looking for a woman’… We externalize our success, and we are left with a fear of being found out.” 

   When a woman does not succeed, society uses the incident to prove she never belonged in the first place. Success does not feel rewarding because it is constantly expected. 

   Another battle emerges when a woman does succeed; she must react to her success in an “acceptable manner.” A significant self-promotion gap emerges from imposter syndrome. According to a study conducted by Harvard Business Review in 2019, men rated their performance on the job 33 percent higher than equally performing women, and this gave them a better chance at a promotion.

   Although self-promotion may help men advance, the same behavior hurts women. Gender strategist Joan Kuhl worked with women of all ages in a series of over 100 workshops, reporting to NBC News that women become more afraid of sharing their successes than their failures because they receive large amounts of backlash for promoting themselves and are judged more harshly than men. 

   While a man may express his accomplishments and be deemed as confident and proud, somehow, I have the notion that it is impolite or improper to talk about my accomplishments ingrained in my mind. If a woman promotes herself, she is not seen as confident or proud, but rather self-absorbed. 

   With so many outside influences, success becomes extremely difficult to navigate. I’m told to be more confident. I’m told to be humble about my accomplishments. I’m told to prove people wrong. I am left asking myself one question: how can I possibly do it all?

   I’ve discovered that no test score or final grade will correct the feelings of imposter syndrome. However, if I could, I would tell that seventh grade girl in her Advanced Math class that she is not alone; STEM classes and careers remain areas where many women feel out of place. These various fields lack female role models, leaving aspiring women feeling like outsiders vying to belong.

   A dangerous cycle emerges from women’s imposter syndrome, especially within STEM careers. Fear of failure can prevent women from attempting harder classes or cause them to completely leave areas of study when receiving a bad grade. As fewer women go into a subject area, fewer female role models emerge. Alongside the encouragement of supportive mentors, representation truly matters if we want to break this cycle. 

   It is not the successful woman who needs to change. 

   It is time to change the message we send to young women. Stop telling women to fix their strained relationship with personal self confidence and start changing the society that isolates women when succeeding.