Female Imposter Syndrome and Its Limiting Effects

Ever feel like an imposter in your work role? Despite your evident success or inimitable skills, are you shy about charging your worth, going for a promotion, or even asking for annual leave? Female Imposter Syndrome is a gendered, very real phenomenon. Its manifestations affecting women in very real ways: financial, emotional, physical, and psychological to name a few.

Women are statistically under-represented, under-employed, and underpaid in the workforce compared to their male counterparts. This is often turned back onto women, saying they need to negotiate harder, ‘lean in’, acquire more skills, be more interested in business, and be excellent mothers too. Add to that the structural barriers which are thrown in our way when women return to the workforce after becoming mothers, and it’s no wonder we don’t feel quite secure in our working roles. But we’ll come to that.

Not too long ago I had a mentoring session with social justice journalist and author of Troll Hunting Ginger Gorman. I mentioned being hit by ‘imposter syndrome’ over the past few months. She quashed it with these simple words:

“Pretend you’re a mediocre white male who knows he can do it.”

Ginger Gorman, on Female Imposter Syndrome

I loved the quote and thought, yes, she’s right. And she was. But it’s not as simple as that, because when it comes to work, merit, success and ambition, men and women do not walk the same road.

Female Imposter Syndrome is more complicated than women not being as confident as men in the workplace.  It’s a gendered conundrum of worth with real effects based on the fact that women are still seen as ‘Female Imposters’ in the workplace, and halls of power and privilege.

“We want to see women rise. But we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.”

(Translation: We enjoy power and privilege. We like women but we don’t want to share that stuff with them.)

The tone-deaf Prime Minister of Australia, on International Women’s Day

Women’s Work and Feminised Nurturing 

The world we live in has a deeply ingrained bias when it comes to the concept of the value of women as workers. The repetitive nature of our ‘traditional’ caring roles in a patriarchal society has set us up to do the repetitive, inane and sometimes revolting tasks men generally do not (I woke up just last night to the sound of my daughter vomiting in the hallway, so am qualified to speak on this.) Not only are we expected to do it – and I did clean the vomit – but we’re expected to do it uncomplainingly. We’re meant to love it.

When you love something, you do it for love – out of a sense of duty – of what is right. The work of wives and mothers is not taken into account when they calculate GDP. It should be, because those unpaid hours, including pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and nurturing what Jane Caro describes as “the next generation of tax-payers”, saves countless dollars. Refusing to assign a dollar value to the work renders the work of nurturing as worthless.

Whether you’re a mother, a carer, or not, this impacts you because the way society sees all ‘women’s work’ and all women at work is informed by the under-valued, too-easily dismissed perceptions of feminine nurturing.

Gendered Ideas of Work, Worth and Pay

Here’s a real world example, and one I was shocked at how angry I felt on these women’s behalf.  Programmers and coders didn’t start getting authorship rights on papers until the jobs got an image change and were upgraded from being tedious ‘women’s work’ to a ‘man’s job’ circa the 1980’s.

Think about that one. Were the women concerned already breaking norms by working at a career (outside of marriage and motherhood) and afraid to rock the boat by asking for more? Maybe they were aware of the gendered diminishing of their intelligence and input; maybe they were just busy getting on with their important work.

As far as women in the workforce have come since the 1950’s thanks to women like the programmers and coders, and baby boomer women like my mother, it’s as if in the deep recesses of our work-life souls we’ve never completely shaken the feeling that we’re already lucky to have gotten this far. 

Even as recently as yesterday at time of writing, Youtube are in the thick of it for allowing a social media smear campaign against Dr Katie Bouman, the leader of the Event Horizon project to find an algorithm which gave us the first pictures of a black hole. The smear alleges she’s got the credit because she’s female, and is usurping male team member Andrew Chael. Chael has denied the claims.

Imposter Syndrome – The Male Inoculation

Do men get a strain of Imposter Syndrome? Of course. They’re human after all and experience self-doubt. But the cis-het male is inoculated by being an actual member of the patriarchy, so his version isn’t nearly as severe. Men are conditioned by our patriarchal society to see the world as their oyster. The average white dude is more likely to slap himself on the back, casually and convincingly think to himself ‘Yeah, I’ve got this’ than the woman who joins female-centred business groups with the membership collectively reassures itself ‘You’ve got this!!’.

Men take up their space with pride, literally and figuratively. Take a look around next time you’re using public transport, or notice who gives way when you walk along a crowded street. The reason male privilege exists is because men hear a lot less about what they can’t do and why they can’t do it.

(Female) Imposter Syndrome – Not Just a Buzz Word


How does Female Imposter Syndrome impact women? Just a few key areas:

Participation, Petty Criticisms, and Pay

Job Applications

  • Men who apply for jobs tend to make sure they satisfy most of the criteria; about 60%. Women who apply for jobs tend to make sure they nail every single aspect of the criteria. An article published by the Harvard Business Review says this isn’t because men have more confidence than women per se, but because more women interpret the required qualifications, experience and criteria as, well – being required. This revealed an “error” in our perceptions of the job application process, and an over-estimation of meritocracy. I think that speaks volumes in itself, but still: ‘Tomayto, tomato.’ If more men than women feel they’d have a good chance of winning the day despite not having all of the required qualifications and experience, it means (male) Imposter Syndrome doesn’t present the same self-limiting quandary to men as it does to women.

Increased Scrutiny

  • Women are judged on their appearance much more than men and we know it. This is important because there’s a well-documented link between feeling uncomfortable in our own skin and (comparatively) poorer cognitive function and decision-making.
  • The language women use is criticised more than men’s; when we speak assertively people think we’re a bitch, and when we use diminutive forms of ‘female speak’ people don’t take us seriously enough. Our ideas are placed under greater scrutiny than men’s, and I nearly forgot: our failures are remembered for longer. Isn’t that great?

Gender Pay Gap

  • Women in roles who can negotiate their salary offer and settle for less than men in the same role. When it comes to things like asking for leave or asking for the promotion you know you deserve, women of all levels in the workplace ask for less than men.
  • While men are firmly on the hook for this one, part of the reason the gender pay gap still exists is because when we ask for more, we’re more likely to ask for the “neutered, self-compromised version you think you can get” rather than what we actually want, like mediocre white men do. This relates directly to whether we feel secure in our roles and our abilities, or whether we feel like a Female Imposter who’s been flying under the radar and might be caught out any second.

Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

Oh yes they are.  I’m a believer in like-minded women banding together on social media, and I’m the last person to breathe life into the myth about women being too bitchy to help other women. The flip side is that we don’t have to agree with everyone who has lady-parts, and some women (#notallwomen) range from being unsupportive to being actively unhelpful to their female peers.

When it comes to asking for advice and feedback in the wrong sort of female-centred online community, you can find yourself on treacherously slippery ground, thick with frenemies. I’ve seen it too many times: ‘No offence hun, but [insert highly offensive, unconstructive ‘feedback’ one will definitely be offended by]’.  I haven’t made the same mistake.

I spoke to award-winning businesswoman, copywriter, and freelancer Jay Crisp Crow about the “pretend you’re a mediocre white male” statement, Female Imposter Syndrome, and navigating the potential minefield of large social media groups.

If we ask too many people for approval, especially other women in business, we get caught up in their insecurities and syndromes, we can let the collective voice shout us down…In this way, Female Imposter Syndrome can be contagious.

Being threatened by another person’s talent or drive are big predictors of this kind of behaviour, and it’s not limited to women. If we’re going to entertain the whole ‘bitchy women’ idea for even a second (which I am), consider this: Women haven’t got here all by ourselves.

Patriarchy’s Self-Replicating Success

Women have been conditioned to define ourselves by the things men valued us for: our attractiveness and desirability and how efficiently we perform wifely duties – all of them, remember ‘Wives should always be lovers first’. Hmmmm. As the cohabitation of extended families became less and less common through the ages, by the 1950’s a life of domesticity was almost as isolating and limiting as, say, the life of an ancient Athenian woman. Women were educated for a while if her family was rich enough, and to make her a more interesting companion for her husband. As soon as she was married, the study and work finished, and she was sequestered into suburban homes as wives to the man who provided for them.

Isolation and Domination

In her epoch-making book The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir says where other oppressed groups still had a sense of community and solidarity, adult women were oppressed and separated from one another in every sense. Sandra Bartky’s 1979 paper On Psychological Oppression echoes this sentiment. Women are made to constantly doubt themselves by being given a “distorted view” of themselves and the male sex; this continues daily in advertising where the objectification of women is commonplace,  the ‘sex sells’ mantra used to sell everything (except women’s sexual pleasure). Women are harsher self-critics – it can extend to other women by gendered proxy.

Women were taught to see other women as competition, the patriarchy systematically isolating us from our ‘tribe’ psychologically as well as physically. When an oppressor isolates their victim, it makes it hard to break the bonds and leave; thus the patriarchy maintains its rules with very little effort from any man.

More Women’s Work: Changing Semantics, Attitudes, and Outcomes

Women aren’t zombies destined to repeat past mistakes, but the attitudes I’ve described are a part of our very recent collective cultural past. They still permeate our culture and inform who we are and how we should be treated, and they won’t go away unchallenged. In other words, we’ve got more work ahead of us.

If the #MeToo movement has shown anything, it’s that now is another time of great social change. #MeToo showed the world how common sexual harassment and violence is, and also what women can achieve by speaking out and telling hard truths.

I truly believe the more women who share genuine experiences of the realities of running a business, running for parliament, full-time parenting, running the family as well as your working life, whatever shape your life takes, the better. The more we uncover the (gendered and problematic) lie of perfection, the less susceptible we become to the limitations we place on ourselves, including chronic cases of Female Imposter Syndrome.

Female Imposter Syndrome – The Female Inoculation

I asked Jay what her secret to success in the midst of Female Imposter Syndrome and the odd female frenemy.

“We’ve got to stop thinking of success as a pie that must be shoved down our gobs before our little sister gets her mits on a piece. And we’ve got to get over the idea that business growth will be comfortable…

“There’s an inoculation against [Female Imposter Syndrome] and it’s a blend of not asking for permission and taking an action.”

Sounds like sage advice to me.

Back to what Ginger Gorman said to me: “Pretend you’re a mediocre white male who knows he can do it”. Telling women to think like men in order to succeed isn’t something I usually advocate for. I did like Jay’s take on Ginger’s advice though:

…There’s a blessing in embracing an ‘acquired ignorance’ approach…

I’ve found real freedom in not knowing the ‘right’ way to do business as a female and having it turn out successful. There’ve been so many times when someone, after the fact, has uttered to me, ‘Well, that shouldn’t have worked.’

Jay Crisp Crow, Female Imposter Syndrome Smasher

Imagine just for a minute how it might feel to live a life with fewer question marks over your ideas and actions; a place where you’re given merit for just showing up, extra points for taking action, and extra-extra points for doing stuff like dropping the kids off to school or taking them with you to the shops: this is the white male’s world.

So maybe it’s not so much “pretend[ing]” we’re mediocre white males, but trying to adopt an attitude of not sweating the small stuff. There’s freedom in that.

I’ve pointed to some of the complex layers which come with Female Imposter Syndrome. However, adopting more of a devil-may-care attitude is something worth taking from the patriarchal playbook and keeping for ourselves; even if it takes a bit of practice.

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