Extended summary (blog) from the discussion on imposter syndrome (part two)
Is imposter syndrome the right term?
No. As in our part 1 on imposterism, Chris also agrees that using “syndrome” makes it sound like an individual ‘condition’, which by extension suggests that the solution should focus on ‘treating’ the individual. However, in many ways the true root of an individual’s impostor feelings are in how others act toward them, and its impact on their sense of self (e.g., how confident, competent, etc. one feels). So to say, imposter feelings come from the outside – in. And so the ‘treatment’ for impostorism should also not start with the individual, but instead with the people around one (e.g., how colleagues act toward one at work–do they treat her/him/hir in ways that offer assurances that she/he/ze is indeed deserving of the position, role, responsibilities, etc. that she/he/ze has? Or do they treat her/him/hir in ways that lead her/him/hir to question their ‘deservingness’ of that position, role, etc.?). All to say, rather than thinking of imposterism as a individual ‘syndrome’ that requires individual treatment, we may need to think about it as a cultural phenomena that requires group- or cultural-level change/’treatment.’
What about engaging colleagues in non-work related conversation?
This can be more tricky than you might think. Keep in mind that asking non-work relevant guidance can make things worse not better. For example: If you have a female colleague who likes running, don’t only engage her in conversation about running and not about her science. Just something to keep in mind. These types of interactions can contribute to their imposter feelings, as they tacitly suggest that she does not have work-relevant knowledge, skills or insights that are worth discussing. Yet it is these work-relevant skills, insights, etc. that need to be acknowledged and appreciated in order for her — and any other given individual (regardless of gender) — to feel confident and deserving/assured of their position, role, responsibilities, etc. at work.
How do the reposes of men and women differ in a male dominated workplace?
In male dominated workplaces, men are more likely to internalise their sense of being competent, able and well-suited for that workplace/profession. This makes sense as you look around and see others similar to you (and when you know that this profession has historically always been represented by people like you). By comparison, women in these environments may see fewer people of their own gender, and so have fewer cues/see less evidence in the environment that signal that they they, as women, are well-suited for that workplace/profession. Instead, being the minority gender in that workplace/profession, women may be seen by others (and recognize that others are seeing them) through a ‘gendered lens.’ That is, they may be more readily seen in terms of the stereotypes of their gender. This can elicit, among other things, a sense of stereotype threat — stress and concern that they are being viewed and evaluated based on stereotypes of their gender, which can ultimately have a negative impact on one’s performance. For example, if I make a mistake others may assume it is because I am a woman. It is also important to note that this is not just a gendered issue. Racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants and non-native English speakers, and individuals who belong to other socially stigmatised groups can similarly face barriers in feeling that they are competent, able and well-suited for that workplace/profession (because of cultural stereotypes that can impact how they are treated, how they are evaluated, and how readily they experience forms of stress that can impact their ability to perform at work to their fullest potential).
What about in male dominated boardrooms/meetings?
In male dominated board room contexts, men are more resilient to having their ideas openly criticised or being interrupted — not so readily internalising those criticisms as a sign that they lack work-relevant competencies, skills, knowledge, etc. But women are more likely to internalise this criticism as a sign that they lack those competencies, knowledge, etc. Importantly, this is not because women are simply ‘more sensitive.’ Instead, such differences in how men and women internalize criticism are rooted in the cultural stereotypes often present in male-dominated workplaces/professions. Specifically, for women, being in an environment that highlights gender stereotypes (suggesting women are less competent or not as well-suited for that workplace/profession; highlighted for instance when one recognizes that women are a minority/under-represented in that environment, or when one recognizes that they are treated in subtly different ways compared to their male counterparts), enable such criticisms to more readily get internalised are reflections of one’s true lack of competence/value/worth. After all, these criticisms readily fit into the (stereotypical) idea that women indeed lack the competence/suitability to be in that profession (or in that particular position within the profession). By comparison, for men, such criticisms run counter to the more readily assumed (stereotypical) idea that they are (and have always been) well-suited for that profession — prompting men to more readily consider alternative explanations for that criticism (e.g., “the person criticizing me is just a jerk, or having a bad day…it’s not me, it’s them…”). Similarly, men may more readily internalize positive feedback they receive at work compared to women. This is because such experiences readily fit with pre-existing/assumed (stereotypical) notions of men’s competence/suitability for that profession, and thus more readily, and unquestionably, internalized as reflections of one’s true competence/value/worth. By comparison, for women, this same positive feedback can come shrouded in pre-existing (stereotypical) notions of relative incompetence—or at least one’s competence is not so readily assumed in that profession—and so those experiences cannot be as readily or unquestionably internalized as reflections of one’s true competence/value/worth. Ultimately, this is important because evidence shows that when one feels competent/valued (as a function of how others treat them) they are significantly less likely to feel like an impostor.