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Imposter syndrome: What is it and how can it impact your career?

Do you doubt your successes and talents? Then you may be suffering from impostor syndrome. Find out here how it can hinder your career and how you can combat it.

6 min read

Have you ever experienced a creeping feeling of self-doubt, or felt that your professional accomplishments are undeserved? Well, if so, you may be experiencing imposter syndrome, a sense of doubt about your own abilities and achievements. Imposter syndrome can have a negative impact on your mental health, but also on your career — and it disproportionately affects women. Read on to learn what imposter syndrome is, how it manifests in your professional life, and what you can do to combat it. 

Feeling like an imposter

I know from personal experience how difficult it is to admit that you may be grappling with impostor syndrome — and how exhausting the experience can be. At first, your feelings of self-doubt may feel small, like a leaky faucet — the drips are there, but they’re almost imperceptible. You ignore them, or repress them, and move on. But soon enough, the drizzle turns into a steady stream, to the point where you begin to repeatedly question your competence. Suddenly, you find yourself looking at projects and tasks and thinking: "Was that good enough?" or “Could I or should I have done more?” Or worse, you may even wonder: "What if everyone realizes that I don't actually know what I'm doing here?"

Once you get caught in these cognitive loops, it's not easy to break out again. You begin to constantly question your skills, experience, and achievements — and believe that you’re just not up to the task. The irony here is that, usually, the opposite is true. 

Although studies show that impostor syndrome occurs in all demographics, it appears to primarily affect women. But what exactly is imposter syndrome, and do women really suffer from it more than men? Let’s dig in.

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Does impostor syndrome affect women more than men?

The phenomenon of imposter syndrome was first identified in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne Imes in an article titled "The Impostor Phenomenon in High-Performing Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention." According to their study, impostor syndrome triggers an inner feeling of so-called “intellectual phoniness,” wherein a person does not attribute their achievements and successes to their talent and skill, and constantly questions their own abilities.

Clance and Imes concluded that impostor syndrome primarily affected high-performing women. Indeed, countless studies since have indicated that women in particular suffer from feelings of inadequacy. A 2020 study by KPMG found that 75% of 750 high-performing women executives surveyed had suffered from imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. A whopping 85% even believe that imposter syndrome affects most women in corporations in the US. 74% of those surveyed also believed that their male colleagues in similar positions experience feelings of self-doubt much less frequently.

It’s important to note: studies show that impostor syndrome can occur in all demographics and genders. Nevertheless, given that women are much more likely to experience this phenomenon, it’s worth examining the role that sexism and gender inequality might play. Sexist stereotypes permeate all walks of life, making it harder for women to trust in their own abilities. From women being disproportionately judged by their appearance, to unfair assertions about them being too emotional to take on leadership positions, to bogus notions about men’s superiority in math, science, or cognitive reasoning — we are still living in a deeply unequal world. And when women are undermined professionally in ways small and large, it’s no surprise that they start to question their capacity for success. 

Looking back, I realize that in my own life, I’ve tried to counteract negative stereotypes by dressing in a way that read as more “traditional” — all in the hopes that it would help me be taken more seriously at work. Even today, I ask myself how my clothes or appearance might impact how I am perceived at work, rather than seeing this as separate from my professional skills and competence. Conversely, I don’t think my male colleagues give this a second thought. 

Given all this, it’s worth considering  impostor syndrome as just another label that is put on women that fails to interrogate the historical and social mechanisms behind it. If we place the burden of imposter syndrome on women alone, we let ourselves off the hook for combating the power structures that contribute to it. Indeed, Clotilde Napp and Thomas Breda's study "The stereotype that girls lack talent: A worldwide investigation" punctuates the notion that women tend to find fault in themselves and assume that they simply lack talent and knowledge, while men usually blame personal failures or mistakes on external factors.

How imposter syndrome can hurt your career

That self-doubt damages your personal development seems logical. However, imposter syndrome can also have a direct impact on your own career — especially if you’re a woman. Due to the gender pay gap and other financial and social inequities, women are often in a weaker financial position than their male counterparts. In 2021, women earned on average 12.7% less per hour in the EU. Due to the Gender Pension Gap, women in Germany also received retirement income that's 59.6% lower than men, while men in Italy received 32.9% more old-age income than women. And yet, as we’ve seen, it is exactly these inequities that cause women to doubt their own abilities.  

Although imposter syndrome is not an acknowledged illness, this extreme form of self-doubt can have psychological side effects such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Anxiety often limits your ability to concentrate, while depression can impact your mood and motivation — all of which can impact your performance at work. This quickly creates a vicious circle of deep-seated self-doubt paired with performance-limiting mental illnesses. Imposter syndrome can also prevent you from pursuing promotions and pay raises, harming your bank account and your self-esteem. For women in particular, there’s evidence that they won’t pursue high-paying jobs unless they feel 100% qualified, while men go for those same jobs at much higher rates.

Overcoming self-doubt 

These days, imposter syndrome hasn't stopped me from striving for higher positions or a higher salary. And yet, feelings of self-doubt continue to creep in. Which begs the question: Can you ever get rid of impostor syndrome?

To start, take inventory of your talents, professional experience, knowledge, and skills. This will help you see in black-and-white how qualified you are for your job. Mentors or work colleagues can also help by offering constructive, positive feedback and encouragement. Another tip is to educate yourself on negative thought patterns. For me, the book "How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back" by Marshall Goldsmith and Sally Helgesen was instrumental in changing my perception. In it, the authors explore 12 habits that women tend to develop in their careers, including "The Perfectionism Trap," "Expecting the appreciation of others," "Minimizing," or "Reluctance to claim your accomplishments." Not all habits will ring true for you, but others may have a huge impact on how you perceive yourself, fueling both self-doubt and  imposter syndrome. Regardless of how you do it, identifying harmful thought patterns can help you change your perception of your career and achievements.

Finally, it’s important to fight the structural and social mechanisms that contribute to imposter syndrome — especially for women. Doing what you can to advocate for a more equal society won’t just benefit your mental health and career path, it will help future generations of women feel more confident in their abilities, skills, and talents. And that’s something that benefits all of us.

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By Kassandra Pavlidis

Content Marketing Specialist, DACH

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