People count success and expertise in many ways. By some of the most common measures I am not only successful in my field but an expert. I have a master’s degree and have worked in my field for a decade. I worked with communities devastated by a tragedy that made international news. I was on the organizing team of the largest Women’s March outside of the US. I was quoted in the Washington Post on Inauguration Day. I was interviewed on CNN. I spoke on a panel at the University of Oxford. I lead a workshop on protesting at a conference held at Amnesty International. I’ve met with the UN’s refugee branch. Film producers, international activists, and local organizers reach out to me. I’m the board chair of a refugee social services organization. I’ve done many other things that I believe are more influential and in some cases I’m more proud of but these are measures most people understand.
If I read this list for someone else I would think of them as an expert. But I don’t think of myself as an expert. Every time I’m asked for advice my emotions take me on a ride. My heart skips a little beat with excitement. I feel flattered and surprised. Simultaneously, I am plagued by self-doubt. I worry that the person reaching out to me is mistaken. They’ve been tricked into thinking I know something I don’t. I’m going to let them down. I’ve oversold myself. I’m a fraud.
This is imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is the feeling that your success is not due to your abilities but luck or mistake and that someone will discover that you are a fraud. It’s common, even with some unquestionably successful people, like Maya Angelou. The research on this has changed over the years—early studies suggested it was more common in women but in recent years studies have shown that men also experience Imposter Syndrome (also called the Imposter Phenomenon or the Imposter Experience). One explanation for the initial apparent discrepancy is that men are less likely to admit feeling inadequate. Another possibility is that in the 70s when the first research was conducted, women were having higher rates of imposter syndrome but 40 years later we have started overcoming it and men have started admitting it so the numbers are evening out.
I have read many articles on imposter syndrome and how to overcome it. Most of these articles throw up their hands when discussing the causes of imposter syndrome speculating vague causes like parenting or perfectionism. None of the articles I read addressed how the patriarchal system we live under may be the cause of imposter syndrome. It isn’t a broken system with imposter syndrome as a side effect of the dysfunction. Our society is designed to give women imposter syndrome. The patriarchy is working just as it is intended.
The results of the studies of women, attribution, success, and imposter syndrome conducted in the late 60s and 70s felt intuitive to me. Of course women have more doubts about their abilities. Our culture repeatedly tells women that they are not enough—not thin enough, not sexy enough, not hard working enough, not strong enough, and certainly not bright enough. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was seeing a commercial for a Barbie that talked. When you pulled the string in her back a high pitched and perky voice told you “math is hard.” These lessons that we are not enough start so young.
By comparison, boys and men are socialized to believe they are the most intelligent, strong, capable person in the room. This is particularly true of white men. I have often had the experience of sitting in a room with a man in power and wondering how he was possibly able to rise to this rank. Usually the women in the room all had 20 IQ points on him but were several rungs down on the ladder.
When women do succeed they are often surrounded by men who have confidence that outstretches their abilities. If a woman, hammered with messages of inadequacy her whole life, finds herself at the top of a field with men who have been taught they are entitled to their success, it is no surprise that she starts to wonder if she should be there. Is it possible that over the last four decades as women have started to force their way to the tops of their fields that women’s rate of the imposter phenomenon have dropped while men have started acknowledging some self-doubt, leading to nearly equal numbers of imposter syndrome in men and women? Is it possible that the system that is designed to keep women unsure of themselves and consequently less likely to seek power is getting some cracks? If that is what’s going on can we widen those cracks simply by allowing ourselves the successes we’ve earned? Let’s give it a try.
Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist