Here’s a pretty good article from Harvard Business Review on gender and imposter syndrome. It’s a little bit wokey-wokey — lots of references to “micro-aggressions” and such — but it makes a handful, or several handfuls, of good points. This paragraph likely slaps the hardest:
The label of imposter syndrome is a heavy load to bear. “Imposter” brings a tinge of criminal fraudulence to the feeling of simply being unsure or anxious about joining a new team or learning a new skill. Add to that the medical undertone of “syndrome,” which recalls the “female hysteria” diagnoses of the nineteenth century. Although feelings of uncertainty are an expected and normal part of professional life, women who experience them are deemed to suffer from imposter syndrome. Even if women demonstrate strength, ambition, and resilience, our daily battles with microaggressions, especially expectations and assumptions formed by stereotypes and racism, often push us down. Imposter syndrome as a concept fails to capture this dynamic and puts the onus on women to deal with the effects. Workplaces remain misdirected toward seeking individual solutions for issues disproportionately caused by systems of discrimination and abuses of power.
Would almost universally agree with this. There is a tremendous amount to unpack herein, and we will try to skirt the edges of the topic, but before we do that, this article also mentions how there are five million Google results for dealing with imposter syndrome, and many of them tell women to “attend an event” or “read more” or “speak to themselves in the mirror.” Thought leadership, indeed.
Let’s unpack some of this
The first thing I think that needs to be acknowledged is that everyone, of both genders/sexes, has a fear of not being good enough at work. (And in life, and sexually, and as parents, etc, etc.)
The second thing that needs to be acknowledged is that gender dynamics get very skewed and testy at work, for multiple reasons — including the fact that men are often scared of women, women can be go-getters and get deemed as “abrasive” (so what’s the point, right?), and over-confident but under-skilled men still run the business world, writ large.
There is a section in the HBR article linked above where they talk about “who gets to decide what is and isn’t professionalism.” Well, that’s a big topic too. Back in March 2016, I wrote a good little thing about professionalism. Actually, what had happened that day was I took a call with some ERP dudes and I was laughing and cursing and all this shit, and my then-wife tells me “God, that was so unprofessional.” But the dudes on the call were laughing and cursing too. It’s all about context and code-switching, ya know? Interestingly we got divorced about a year to the day after I wrote that article. Hmm.
The problem is, “what’s professionalism” is normally determined by founders and executives, and those tend to be middle-aged white men (not always, but often). So a woman, or a POC woman, is playing from behind before she even gets off the bus. It’s sad, but it’s reality. Middle-aged white men can be wokey-wokey, but in general they understand women through the prism of their wife, their daughters (if applicable), a few people at work, and honestly celebrity and porn. They don’t have much of a framework beyond that. Potentially toss mother and grandmother in there, but for men I always think those relationships wane with age.
That’s why women get popped with the “imposter syndrome” thing a lot, and the “You suffer from this” a lot, even though it’s not a “suffering” thing and all of us feel doubt — ironically, many of the men who probably lob out “imposter” grenades suffer from more doubt than any of the women they’re lobbing those grenades at.
What’s the answer?
Watch less porn, have more daughters.
No, I jest.
The answer is a general sense of human understanding and empathy, which is very hard in workplaces — which tend to be fraught and over-competitive because of zero-sum notions of human success.
A man can understand a woman in many contexts, and it shouldn’t be that hard to understand, respect, and have empathy for colleagues — but workplaces and lack of psychological understanding get in the way.
The short answer if you’re a dude is to try more. That, and caring, might get you there.