For Jessica Regan, imposter syndrome in her career has often felt like a weight she has had to carry.
“My experiences with imposter syndrome are like this little invisible backpack that I had on that was showing up at my work, [a] feeling like I really needed to be excellent all the time,” says Ms. Regan, who is diversity, equity and inclusion advisor at Bloom, a Toronto-based workplace design consultancy.
Ms. Regan says that as a woman of colour and someone with anxiety, “I was wondering why it felt so much harder for me. I remember feeling like if I don’t show myself as an asset, and as someone who can’t be replaced, then I will be replaced.”
Imposter syndrome is a catch-all term that is used loosely to describe someone who doubts their own abilities or feels like a fraud at work. But while this term has commonly been positioned as something psychological that people – especially women – have to get over, Jodi-Ann Burey and Ruchika Tulshyan say that’s a damaging misconception.
“The best, first step women can [take] to mitigate feelings of self-doubt and unbelonging is to stop blaming ourselves,” says Ms. Burey, a TED talk speaker and podcaster. “Look first to what triggers those feelings. That’s where we can find our next step solutions.”
A tendency to ‘blame and fix’ rather than assist
In a series of articles for the Harvard Business Review in 2021, Ms. Burey and Ms. Tulshyan set out to reframe how we view imposter syndrome. While these feelings of discomfort or anxiety in the workplace have been pathologized as a syndrome, putting the onus on women to stop feeling this way, the two writers argue that the real problem is rooted in structural bias and discrimination, something companies and systems should be working to improve.
Ms. Tulshyan, founder of inclusion strategy practice Candour and author of the forthcoming Inclusion on Purpose, says she’s been preoccupied with the idea of imposter syndrome for close to a decade. When she was asked to speak at women-focused conferences, conversations would inevitably turn to the topic. It became even more intense through COVID-19 when she was working and caring for her child at home.
“As a society, there is a tendency to want to blame and fix women instead of assisting them,” says Ms. Tulshyan. “Rather than thinking of this as healthy self-doubt, the feelings women and women of colour have are pathologized into a syndrome.”
Moving away from the word “syndrome” and back to the original terminology of “imposter phenomenon” would go a long way in directing the issue toward organizations rather than the individual, Ms. Burey says.
“When we look at it as a syndrome, we look at our own behaviours [to explain] why we came to be so unhealthy,” she says. Rather than running workshops on how to overcome imposter syndrome, “company leaders and managers should instead be asking themselves, ‘What am I doing to trigger so many people to question themselves, and feel as if they’re not good enough for this role?’”
‘Stop gaslighting and listen’
Companies that want to take action and create spaces for employees where no one feels like an imposter need to start with data and setting up accountability mechanisms for change, Ms. Burey says. That means greater transparency around things like racial and gender pay gaps, promotion rates and how performance is being evaluated for all employees.
“If we can bring light to the structures of our workplaces, then we can hopefully stop looking at women’s psyches and feelings as the cause for challenges we face in our careers,” she says.
Ms. Tulshyan adds that employers need to “stop gaslighting and listen” to all team members. She adds this step is not as easy to quantify, since it’s subjective and not data-driven.
“Women and other underestimated people are often given feedback that is more style over substance,” she says. “[For example,] comments about how they are presenting something [rather than] the content of the presentation. And a lot of these types of critiques only increase the feeling of self-doubt.”
At Bloom, Ms. Regan and her team work with organizations to help them build equitable and inclusive work systems. She says that leadership buy-in is key to creating the kind of systemic changes that will eliminate imposter syndrome.
For example, workplaces can start with how job openings are posted, ensuring any gender-specific language is removed. “If [a job posting] is using language that is very gendered or masculine, already that’s going to create the feeling that the space isn’t for me. So even if I do get a job here, this job is set up for folks that maybe have different lived experiences than I do.”
Meaningful work toward better outcomes
To reduce feelings of self-doubt, Ms. Regan says employers need to create safe spaces that are free from discrimination or harassment, where “folks feel like they can show up to work as their whole selves, without fear of being misgendered, tokenized, being victim to microaggressions, sexism, racism and other non-inclusive behaviours.”
For example, in a non-inclusive environment a manager might assume that a working mother wouldn’t want to take on a project that requires extensive travel because of caregiving duties. Or, racialized people may feel pressured to assimilate and engage in code-switching (changing dialect and diction to adhere to white standards of “professionalism”) and covering (minimizing or hiding aspects of their identity) in order to fit in and not seem “too” Black, Asian or Indigenous.
To ensure they are creating safer spaces for their employees, Ms. Regan says her team encourages employers to reflect on any policies they make, asking themselves: Who might benefit most from this policy? Who might be harmed? Who might we have overlooked?
Ms. Regan notes that leaders embarking on these changes should recognize they are on a journey, and there aren’t always goalposts to indicate an endpoint.
“Yes, it [does take] work, but it is meaningful work that is going to have better outcomes for folks at your organization,” she says. “When folks feel like they can be themselves at work, they are a lot more likely to perform better at work.”
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