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Imposter Syndrome and Women of Color: How race and gender stereotypes impact high achieving women

By Kim Nguyen

Illustration by Jon McCormack

I’m in my fourth year of a Ph.D. program and have been harboring a shameful secret – that I am not smart enough to be here and that one day, all my professors and fellow students will realize that I don’t belong. I’m pretty sure I was just lucky to have snuck in – like I have with nearly everything I’ve done. I’ve never talked about this, not even with my closest friends.

But I’ve started to realize that I’m not alone. I’ve heard other female students – both white women and women of color – express the same fears of not being good enough. It blows my mind because they seem brilliant to me, and often with a level of shock, I declare how intelligent they are. All the while, I hold the same fears. It appears that this phenomenon, known as the imposter syndrome, is extremely common among high-achieving women (Clance & Imes, 1978). While impostor phenomenon has been reported among men, persistent gender stereotypes produce a unique experience for women, especially for women of color (Bernard et al., 2017).

From birth, girls and boys are socialized to believe that many of the most important parts of their personalities are all due to the sex they were assigned at birth. But in reality, the stereotypes our society holds about men and women are due to entrenched ideologies of what it means to be masculine and feminine. Masculinity ideology, or the widespread set of beliefs about how men should be, expects that men are innately superior to women in strength, leadership and rational thinking. As a result, men are expected to succeed in stereotypically masculine domains like athletics, business, and science. In contrast, femininity ideology expects that women are naturally more passive, emotional. When a woman succeeds in domains that are stereotyped as masculine, it is often chalked up to good luck or she is considered unusual – after all, it’s not the “natural” order of things. But if we look at history and research, it’s clear that these ideologies are anything but natural.

The facts: More women than men hold certificates, associate, and bachelor degrees. Girls now perform as well or better than boys in science and math. Thanks to recent targeted efforts by state and non-profit organizations – as well as teachers and administrators – to increase and support girls’ participation in STEM classes, we now know that gender differences in STEM careers are not due to innate differences in abilities and interests, but rather cultural expectations and conditioning (Dasgupta & Stout, 2014; Brown Leaper, 2010).

So why are successful and accomplished women still questioning themselves?

Some stereotypes die hard. And gender stereotypes can really become ingrained in our individual psyches. Research reveals that men tend to attribute their achievements to their innate abilities while women attribute them to chance or hard work (Cokley et al., 2015; Erkut, 1983; Clance & Imes, 1978). No wonder women so often feel like imposters! If society teaches us that our successes are due to external factors like dumb luck, when we do achieve our goals, we often feel like we don’t really deserve it. What’s worse, we worry someone we respect might find out – and agree.

We see messages that amplify gender differences all the time; just look at advertisements or other cultural artifacts that reflect our society back to us. These explicit and implicit messages about girls’ and women’s supposed inabilities create spaces that can be unwelcoming, intimidating, and sometimes even hostile (Settles, Corina, Buchanan, & Miner, 2012; Leskinen, Corina, & Kabat, 2011; Sue, 2010). Messages from our culture constantly challenge whether women and girls are good enough and whether they are qualified to make big decisions. Women are kept out of the spaces where decisions that impact the lives of millions of women are actually made. Remember the infamous photo of 30 or so white men voting on the future of women’s health care?

So while the evidence shows that women are just as capable as men across domains, myths about brain differences and natural abilities still linger and shape our world, impacting how we understand ourselves, our relationship dynamics, and our social and political structures. And while it’s easy for us to point out obvious forms of gender discrimination and sexism (e.g., gender-based violence, harassment, wage gaps), often times, sexism can be subtle and hard to recognize which makes it harder to call out. Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m just overreacting. I’m being hyper-sensitive. They probably didn’t mean it that way?” I know I have, and that insidious gender socializing is what makes women believe that despite our successes, we somehow just fooled our way to the top.

And the Imposter Syndrome isn’t just relevant to women based on gender; it also affects people based on race. Like gender stereotypes, no matter how much progress we make as a society, racial stereotypes die hard, too. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, across all races, black women earn more degrees and certificates than their male counterparts in a disparity that is greater than any other racial group. Even though more women than men earn college degrees, women, and especially women of color, remain hugely underrepresented in top leadership positions in academia (Ginther & Kahn, 2012; Turner, 2002) as well as other sectors across business and government.

While black women earn more degrees across all races for their racial group, they are consistently amongst the lowest paid. This disconnect between earning potential and actual wages – a proxy of one’s “worth” or value in an organization – reveals a system that discriminates against and devalues groups of people based on race and gender. Imposter phenomenon is characterized by not quite feeling like one belongs or is worthy. Considering all this, it’s not hard to see how women of color may internalize some of these feelings, even in the face of high achievements (Cokley et al., 2017; Cokley et al., 2013). Asian women report some of the highest rates of impostor syndrome. While Asian women earn more wages than white women, they face stereotypes that position them as foreigners (I lost count how many times I’ve been asked where I’m really from), submissive, and naturally good at math and science. When I was growing up, I was OK at math and science and remember being too ashamed to ask for help when I needed it. I thought if I asked for help, it would prove that I wasn’t as good as they thought I was – that I wasn’t smart enough and therefore not worthy of acceptance and love.

So, how do we counter the various stereotypes that we each hold and how do we evolve collectively so that we can unlearn harmful stereotypes as a community? Stereotypes persist in part because many are subtle and seem harmless but the underlying messages imply that somehow we aren’t good enough the way we are. Stereotypes amplify differences between real and imagined groups based on race and gender even though these categories we use to divide people are largely unfounded when we take a closer look. Biologists and social scientists have long established that race is a social construct and not biological – in essence, race is not a useful nor accurate way of categorizing or understanding human phenomena. Yet, our society remains extremely divided on race and gender.

Gender stereotypes are based on assumptions that masculinity and femininity are opposite and opposing, and that masculinity exists within male bodies while femininity exists solely within female bodies. Research and science has caught up with the fact that humans are more complicated than simply male and female bodies and our genitalia does not define who we are. There are multiple genders and gender is not the same thing as sex. It is our insistence that people conform according to traditional and outdated social constructions of gender and race that forces us to deny parts of our humanity, thus obstructing our ability to fully embrace our potential. We need to recognize that we have more than earned our place at the table.

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