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Jewesses with Attitude

Is the "imposter syndrome" a woman thing?

Have you ever acted confident when deep down you felt unqualified or incompetent -- in short, like an imposter?  Have you ever felt that someday you would be discovered as a fraud?  A blogger for Psychology Today linked this “imposter syndrome” to women, asking “why do so many successful women feel they are frauds?”  It’s an interesting question to be sure, but I can’t help wondering if the “imposter syndrome” is really specific to women, and if there might be a danger in framing it as a women’s issue.

A post about this article sparked an interesting discussion at Feministing. Many commenters agreed that the “imposter syndrome” was related to gender, and gave examples of situations that support this connection.  One commenter brought up the issue of women in the sciences, arguing that women who are accepted into science and engineering schools like MIT are told they only got in because of their gender.  This type of affirmative-action could be said to contribute to insecurity among women in the sciences who must repeatedly confront the assumption that they do not really deserve to be where they are.

The sciences are not the only field in which women are regarded with suspicion.  As recently discussed in the Forward, women face barriers in Jewish communal organizations as they confront assumptions about their abilities as leaders and fundraisers.  The same assumptions can be found in business, sports, and other traditionally “male” arenas.  I have no doubt that women in these fields, and all fields, experience the “imposter syndrome.”  

It is commonly understood that women and men are socialized differently, and that women are socialized to be less comfortable expressing confidence. Modesty is seen as a virtue for women, but a weakness for men. Therefore, even women working in women-led organizations like JWA experience the “imposter syndrome.”  (I certainly do.) One JWA staffer noted that while working with other women is often empowering, it can sometimes reinforce this type of gendered, self-deprecating behavior. Still, I am not convinced that the imposter syndrome is gender-specific.  Where is the evidence that men are free of those pesky feelings of self-doubt?   It may seem like men are more confident than women, but a more likely explanation is that they have been socialized to hide those feelings and employ the “fake it ‘til you make it” technique.

I imagine that everyone has experienced the “imposter” feeling at some point in their lives, but it seems reasonable to expect that marginalized groups feel it more acutely.  Many groups feel the pressure to prove themselves as people of color, people with disabilities, etc. They also know what it feels like to confront the assumptions that come from quotas based on race or gender.

For example, one commenter on Feministing explained that being a low-income student on a scholarship to an Ivy League school made him feel like a fraud.  A few grad students shared self-doubts about their academic abilities, while a teacher shared her incredulity that what she had to say was important enough for students to write down.  I was particularly struck by a commenter who made the connection between the “imposter syndrome” and the transphobic idea that transsexual women are not really women: “This is somewhat the same - the feeling that you're not good enough to be what you really are.”

Commenter YellowMellow writes:

I would imagine people in other marginalized groups experience the same kinds of feelings when operating within systems (be they smaller like a team or club, or larger like a school, workplace, or city) dominated by those who don't acknowledge or value their background. In some ways this "Imposter Syndrome" seems to be an astute observation of how it feels to be struggling against, or different from, those around you.

I agree with with YellowMellow.  It is important to recognize the ways in which girls and boys are socialized and to make an effort to empower young girls to express confidence rather than self-deprecate.  But framing the “imposter syndrome” as specific to women is dangerous because it could be misinterpreted to suggest that women are biologically predisposed to be emotionally weaker than men – an argument often used to support traditional gender roles and paradigms.

While it is important to support women in overcoming socialized insecurity and self-doubt, we must realize that insecurity is not unique to women, and therefore not a biologically-determined female trait.  Everyone experiences self-doubt.  Marginalized groups, including but not limited to women, face additional challenges owning their own competence and success.  Efforts to empower must reach across the board to reassure people from all groups that yes, they deserve the success they have achieved.

I am curious to hear about your experience with self-doubt.  Can you relate to the "imposter syndrome?"  And if so, do you feel that it is related to your gender or another marginalized status?  Please share your thoughts in the comments!

How to cite this page

Berkenwald, Leah. "Is the "imposter syndrome" a woman thing?." 17 November 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/imposter-syndrome>.

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