What is imposter syndrome?

May 17, 2021 Diversity & InclusionResources 8 minutes read

Millions of people across the world have experienced imposter syndrome in their life, cutting across genders, cultures, backgrounds and nationalities. But what exactly is imposter syndrome, who does it affect and what can you do to combat it?

Let’s take a closer look into what imposter syndrome is and the ways in which it links to the women in STEM community.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome can be defined as an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others may perceive you to be. It can be a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite success. ‘Imposters’ suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence. (Harvard Business Review).

Imposter syndrome is a term that was first used by psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance in the 1970s. When the concept was first introduced, it was mainly applied to high-achieving women. However, since then, it has been recognised as being more widely experienced and can affect anyone no matter their social status, work background, skill level, or degree of expertise. It is usually closely linked with perfectionism and can cause stress, anxiety, low self-confidence, and low motivation.

imposter syndrome is very common

It’s important to remember that if you experience any of these feelings, they are not uncommon. In fact, it is estimated that 70% of people have experienced Imposter Syndrome of some kind in their life.

Characteristics of imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome isn’t recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, however, many people have experienced it, whether they are aware of it or not. Below we have listed some of the common characteristics to help people identify the signs and work towards overcoming them.

  • Self-doubt
  • An inability to realistically assess your competence and skills
  • Attributing your success to external factors
  • Berating your performance
  • Fear that you won’t live up to expectations
  • Overachieving
  • Sabotaging your own success
  • Setting very challenging goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short

Clance and Imes identified “coping” and “protective” mechanisms that people use when experiencing imposter syndrome. These can be characterised as overpreparing for a meeting or assignment, excessive procrastination, perhaps the person chooses not to go for a more challenging job, or doesn’t speak up or ask questions when they know the answer.

people at work

Dr. Valerie Young, an internationally-renowned expert on impostor syndrome and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, explains in more detail: “Impostor syndrome describes a difficulty in internalizing one’s accomplishments or abilities, and instead attributing their success to other factors. Factors such as luck, timing, “someone helped me”, “I had connections” are common examples.”

“Sometimes people plant the seed in our mind that perhaps we are only here because we were a diversity pick in some way, for example, ‘They were looking for a woman’, or ‘I’m included to increase the racial diversity’. We externalize our success, and we are left with a fear of being found out.”

Imposter syndrome and STEM

Research has shown that imposter syndrome is usually more prevalent in high achievers or people who work in high-stress environments, such as academics, researchers, business people, and university students. It is a form of intellectual self-doubt.

Working in STEM can be challenging, regardless of the exact industry you work in, and usually to secure your role you will have studied at university for several years and undergone training. It has been suggested that people working in STEM suffer more from imposter syndrome due to the rapid rate of change and advancement. No human could ever keep up – but we feel we should.

scientist at work

Another reason could be down to the hierarchical structure in STEM, with fresh graduates starting at the bottom of the ladder and working their way up to become ‘experts’ in their fields. Of course, this structure is hugely advantageous, as students can learn from role models with more experience and carve out a career path. However, it has been argued that it can lead to graduates feeling a sense of inadequacy or feeling daunted by being surrounded by people who seem much more successful and intelligent than themselves.  This is when feelings of self-doubt can start to creep in, which can affect young graduates in the workplace.

Imposter syndrome and gender

As mentioned previously, people across the world have experienced imposter syndrome, regardless of gender. However, when we look at environments where there are gender imbalances or people who feel they are in the minority, feelings of imposter syndrome are bound to be more prevalent. For example, if you are the only woman working in a tech company, you may feel added pressure to represent ‘all women’, which can contribute to impostor syndrome. You may also feel like the odd one out, or that you don’t belong there, also characteristics of imposter syndrome.

A sense of belonging fosters confidence. When you walk into a classroom or a meeting, studies have shown that the more people that sound and look like you, the more confident you will feel.

female engineer

In the STEM Women Whitepaper, which surveyed 176 female STEM students and recent graduates studying at universities across the UK, we found that 54% of respondents declined to answer whether they have ever suffered from or experienced imposter syndrome.

This suggests that around half of respondents were either unfamiliar with what imposter syndrome is, or still don’t feel comfortable talking about it.

34% answered yes and highlighted a lack of confidence or a feeling of being ‘out of place’ as the main catalysts.

“It stemmed from a lack of confidence in my capabilities and being surrounded by only men.” – Bristol 2019 Event Attendee.

“I interviewed for 2 software development internships, got 2 interviews and 2 offers. I still think I fooled them somehow in the technical interviews. Or worse, they only hired me because of my gender.” – London 2019 Event Attendee.

Ways to overcome it

There are plenty of ways to combat feelings of imposter syndrome and you can learn to manage it.

It’s important to remember that if you are ever feeling like an ‘imposter’, it means you have experienced some degree of success in your life that you are attributing to luck. Turning those feelings into gratitude can work towards people feeling grateful for what they have achieved in their lives and less pressurised.

One way to combat feelings of being an imposter is to become consciously aware of the conversation or feelings going on in your head. This can make it easier to step back and look at the full picture.

People who don’t suffer from imposter syndrome are no less successful or intelligent, they are simply thinking different thoughts. Research conducted by Bednar and colleagues’ showed that “perceptions of impostorism lack a significant relationship with performance. Individuals with impostor syndrome are still capable of doing their jobs well, they just do not believe in themselves.”

“It’s important to create cultures where people talk about failure and mistakes,” Bednar says. “When we create those cultures, someone who is feeling strong feelings of impostorism will be more likely to get the help they need within the organization.”

STEM Women Events

At STEM Women, we host networking and career events that help people who identify as female and non-binary start their careers in STEM industries. Our events help minority groups to ‘see themselves’ in these career paths by having the chance to listen to inspiring talks from real people working in STEM, chat to representatives from top employers, and learn more about the industry.

panel session talking about imposter syndrome at a stem women event Panel at the STEM Women UK Technology Event 2021

We believe that by increasing the exposure young women have to strong role models in STEM, it will help them to have the confidence to pursue careers in this exciting industry.

One attendee at a STEM Women event highlighted how our events helped her to gain confidence:

“Hearing the experiences of other women in similar situations as me gave me the confidence to apply for jobs that I otherwise might not have applied for.”

For more information about STEM Women events, visit our events page. Follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more insights and to stay up to date with our news.

Enjoy this blog? Find out more about how you can use imposter syndrome to your advantage.