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  • Kim Meninger

Think Impostor Syndrome is a Conspiracy of the System? Think Again.

Impostor syndrome has been getting a lot of press lately.

Think Impostor Syndrome is a Conspiracy of the System? Think Again.

In her 2023 Smith College Commencement Speech, Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code, told graduates that impostor syndrome was invented solely to keep women down.

She compared impostor syndrome to "Bicycle Face," a condition mentioned in an 1895 The Literary Digest review. Bicycle Face was described by doctors of the time as "a face usually flushed, but sometimes pale, often with lips more or less drawn, and the beginning of dark shadows under the eyes, and always an expression of weariness.” Some used it to discourage the rise of female bicycle riding and the freedom it represented for women of the day.

Saujani asserted that impostor syndrome was the modern-day equivalent, as it gained recognition around the time that more women began entering the workforce.

Her speech reminded me of the virally shared 2021 Harvard Business Review article entitled Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome, written by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey. In the article, the authors argue that impostor syndrome pathologized feelings of anxiety and discomfort caused by racism, classism, and other workplace biases, putting the onus and blame on the individual rather than rightfully demanding change from the environment.

In both cases, impostor syndrome is framed as a manufactured phenomenon designed to keep women down.

Let me be clear that I absolutely recognize that major systemic inequalities influence how women experience the workplace. These are real, harmful, and must be addressed.

Yet, there is so much more nuance to be explored here. In this post, I offer some thoughts to broaden this complex issue.

I’ll begin with this one: I don’t believe impostor syndrome was invented to make individuals feel deficient or shamed or to keep women down. In fact, it was first identified by two female researchers, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Instead, I see it as a name given to an observed reaction to the systemic inequity that, unfortunately, shapes how many of us experience the workplace. But it’s more than that. Impostor syndrome is also often rooted in sources such as societal emphasis on achievement and the way so many of us were conditioned by our parents, educators, and others to aim for perfection and avoid failure.

Let’s transform our thinking about impostor syndrome to be less about blaming and shaming and more about naming and empowering.

Professor Matthew D. Lieberman at the University of California Los Angeles found that when we put feelings into words, we can minimize the feeling's intensity. The act of naming and labeling a feeling leads to a decreased response in our amygdala (our brain's threat detection center) and increased activity in our right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for processing feelings and inhibiting behavior). That means that every time we strengthen that prefrontal cortex, we build our ability to respond to our emotions instead of reacting to them. A much more empowered and constructive place to be, right?

So if naming a feeling or experience is the first step to being able to address it, then naming the feelings associated with impostor syndrome has value.

So, should we be demanding change from the system? Of course! Transparency in hiring, equal pay and opportunities, and more psychologically safe and inclusive cultures are all on our list of demands, and the people at the top need to be held accountable for making these changes. Naming impostor syndrome should not put the full burden of transforming the workplace on the person experiencing it. But the reality is that systems change slowly, and we only have a sliver of influence outside our bodies and minds.

So, let’s make it a yes/and.

Let’s demand organizational and systemic change.


Let’s recognize the power we have over how we show up.

By naming the internalized experience of these systemic inequities, we can begin to think and act in ways that benefit us and lift up those around us. And, unlike that systemic change, when we acknowledge how impostor syndrome manifests within us and learn strategies to manage it, we control the pace of change.

Learning to manage impostor syndrome benefits everyone.

Although it disproportionately impacts women, impostor syndrome is not solely a women's issue. And whether you are the one experiencing it or not, you're likely to be affected by it at some point in your career.

Even if it isn't a personal struggle for you, it might be something your manager is grappling with. And if your supervisor doesn't know how to navigate these feelings, they could feel threatened by you and your skills, or not stand up for you to other colleagues because they don't feel safe or confident enough themselves. All this to say: learning tools to manage your own experience of impostor syndrome is not only a service to you but also to those around you.

So while we rally and demand that companies change how things work, let's look inside as well.

By acknowledging impostor syndrome and understanding what it is, what triggers it within us, and what tools we can use to manage it, we have the power to impact the individual and collective experience of work.

I'd love to hear your thoughts! What's your take on the recent debates around impostor syndrome? Join the conversation in my free virtual Leading Humans Discussion Group.

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