Imposter Syndrome in Women

Pushing oneself and perfectionism are some factors that cause imposter syndrome in women. Discover more in the following article.
Imposter Syndrome in Women
Macarena Liliana Nuñez

Written and verified by the psychologist Macarena Liliana Nuñez.

Last update: 21 December, 2023

There are people who experience constant doubt about their worth and ability, even when their successes are undeniable. This phenomenon is called imposter syndrome and was described for the first time in women. Since then, it has been the subject of study and debate.

And, despite the advances in gender equality and female empowerment, this syndrome addresses them in the context of experience, influencing their personal and professional development.

Join us to study it from different perspectives. Through the following analysis, we seek to shed light on a challenge that affects so many women in their quest for self-fulfillment and success.

Imposter syndrome is also known as fraud syndrome, perceived fraud, imposter experience, and impostor phenomenon.

~ Bravata et al. ~

What is imposter syndrome?

A woman in the workplace with imposter syndrome.

Imposter syndrome was first described in the 1970s by Clance and Imes in a work entitled The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention to refer to an internal experience of intellectual falsehood in a select sample of high-performance women.

Today, it’s considered a psychological phenomenon distinguished by the deep sense of insecurity and the persistent belief that one’s success is the result of luck or deceiving others rather than being the product of genuine abilities or merits.

Although it’s not formally recognized as a mental health disorder in the DSM-5, it has certain distinctive characteristics that define it as a syndrome, which are the following:

  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of rejection
  • Self-devaluation
  • Fear of being discovered
  • Constant comparison
  • External attribution of success
  • Difficulty accepting praise
  • Problems internalizing success
  • A doubtful state when making decisions

The phenomenon is related to social pressure, stereotypes, excessive self-demand, or past experiences of failure. There are several types, and it affects all ages, origins, and genders. However, a review in the Journal of General Internal Medicine notes that women are more likely to experience this syndrome compared to men.



Why are women more at risk?

Imposter syndrome arises due to a complex interaction of both internal (personality traits) and external (social pressure) factors. In women, perceived fraud is amplified by adding the impact of racism, xenophobia, classism, and other prejudices. Let’s delve into it.

Clinical-psychological perspective

For women who feel they don’t deserve their own success, it’s due to stereotypes, beliefs, and social expectations that have led them to have a negative view of themselves and question their own abilities. This contributes to their feeling of not being worthy of the success they’ve achieved.

A study in The American Journal of Surgery found that 31.1% of those affected with the syndrome suffer from anxiety. What’s more, women tend to have higher scores than men, given the constant anguish in scenarios where they must demonstrate their competence.

Women with imposter syndrome set very high standards for themselves and strive for perfection. This could lead to procrastination, work, or academic stress, for example. These are very self-critical women who are focused on their flaws and weaknesses instead of recognizing their achievements and strengths.

These women experience a persistent feeling of imbalance between the effort invested and the rewards. In this regard, a study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that people with imposter syndrome subjectively perceive that they’re not adequately rewarded for their successes, inhibiting their ability to feel satisfied with their achievements or be optimistic about future rewards.

Research in social psychology suggests that the way people are treated by others may influence the development of impostor syndrome.

Socio-psychological perspective

In the workplace, the gender pay gap plays an important role. Women often earn less than men for the same work, perhaps influencing their salary expectations and self-confidence early in their careers.

Research shared in the journal Plos One pointed out that salary expectations are internalized differently in men and women, even before starting to work. While men show overconfidence in the face of salary information, women are more risk-averse, less competitive, and lack self-confidence.

Despite progress in gender equality, discrimination persists in terms of promotion and access to leadership roles. Therefore, social stereotypes could influence women’s professional choices.

At the same time, women of minority races and expatriates may experience imposter syndrome more acutely due to the combination of being women of an ethnic minority. This double facet sometimes imposes additional challenges on them. For women of color, the feeling of not belonging in the corporate environment is perhaps more intense because of the intersection of race and gender.

For example, a study in the Journal of African American Women and Girls in Education found that race and gender influence how people experience perceived fraud. Those with low or moderate feelings had positive experiences, while those experiencing the syndrome often had a more difficult academic journey.

These factors may limit their academic and professional performance. However, research in the International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches found no statistically significant differences in the scores of black women PhD holders compared to other students.



The current state of affairs

Impostor syndrome is a phenomenon that leaves an indelible mark on the professional experience of many women, despite notable advances in promoting gender equality in the workplace and academia. To understand it better, it’s essential to consider some revealing statistics.

Three out of four women experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers.

The gap in female representation in management positions

A black woman leading a work team.

While there has been progress, women still don’t have equal representation in leadership and management positions.

According to data from Catalyst, in 2020, the percentage of women in senior management positions varied by region. In Latin America, it represented 36%, while in the European Union it was 34%. Within the European Union, France lead with 38.3%, followed by Germany with 30.1% and Spain with 33.9%.

Furthermore, senior management positions present a marked disparity in terms of the representation of women. In executive positions, only 23% are occupied by women, while at the senior management level, the figure rises to 29%.

In the manager ranks, we find that 37% are women. And in professional roles, the proportion rises to 42%. However, in the support staff category, women represent 47%. These data highlight the need to address and promote gender equality at the highest leadership levels of organizations.

62% of senior management positions are held by men, compared to only 31% by women.

The gender gap in entrepreneurship and the type of work

The annual report of the Entrepreneurship Observatory in Spain, known as the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, provides an insightful perspective on the gender gap in the business world. In 2019, women scored lower on entrepreneurial behavior and higher on fear of failure.

These figures, although eloquent in themselves, are only the beginning of a broader picture of gender inequalities. Before COVID-19, a study by consulting from McKinsey indicated that women leaders were leaving companies at the highest rate in years. The outbreak of the pandemic posed an additional burden on this unequal distribution of responsibilities.

The gender gap and distribution of workloads

Inequalities in the distribution of work and care burdens during the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on female participation in the labor market.

A higher percentage of mothers were forced to leave their jobs than fathers. The conclusion of the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 from the World Economic Forum reveals that gender parity won’t be achieved for 99.5 years.

Mothers of primary school-age children, for example, spent an average of five hours a day on homeschooling, while fathers only spent two hours. Additionally, according to Demographic Research, more than 60% of working mothers have taken on childcare since the start of the pandemic, compared to 42% of fathers.

A black woman working on a laptop.

The underrepresentation of women of color

The representation of women of color in leadership positions of vice president or president is even more alarming. The aforementioned Catalyst report (2022) reports that these women held less than 5% of management positions. The percentage for Latina women is similar, and that of Asian women is even lower.

Imposter syndrome in women: A common obstacle

In conclusion, imposter syndrome manifests itself as a common challenge in the path of many women in their professional and personal development. But as it’s recognized and addressed collectively, it can be overcome, allowing them to reach their full potential and contribute meaningfully to all aspects of society.

It’s pertinent to emphasize that this article intends to highlight that the women who express this don’t lack real skills or competencies. It’s merely a perception of their worth that, on all occasions, is detached from reality.

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