It’s popular now to claim to suffer from the “impostor syndrome.” Admitting that you’re afraid of being found out for not knowing as much as people think you know has become in vogue. Especially among women successful in business.
The term was coined by two psychotherapists working with Georgia State University. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (1978) studied women, who despite continued success in academic fields, assumed that their success was due to factors other than their own ability. These woman came both from families in which another sibling was given credit for being the intelligent one. However, their family members recall that they were told that that could achieve anything as girls. They concluded that “societal sex-role stereotyping appear to contribute significantly to the development of the impostor phenomenon. ” Their goal was to formulate a kind of therapy to overcome this problem.
Perhaps women do not need therapy for this syndrome. It may not be a psychological affliction as much as a form of self-motivation and protection from societal rejection. Purdue psychologists Shamala Kumar and Carolyn M. Jagacinski (2006), measured anxiety level and impostor feelings in students. Their study “found marked diﬀerences between men and women and their experiences of impostor fears. Women endorsed far more impostor fears than men.” But unlike the high scoring men, the women also felt “they must outperform others to feel competent,” basically for a woman to be considered as good as a man in a field, she actually had to be better.
According to the New York Times (2008), a study at Wake Forest found those that scored highly on the impostor score, had higher views of their abilities when they felt their self-assessments were anonymous. They simply didn’t want to appear competitive. Lowering expectations for their performance was a form of protection.
Researchers studying gender stereotypes have found them to be extremely prescriptive. The qualities that stereotypes attribute to each gender “also tend to be the ones required of women and men.” So “violations of gender stereotypes are met with various forms of punishment and devaluation.” (Prentice and Carranza, 2002). But what exactly are these stereotypes?
In comparison to the people in general, women are supposed to be warm, kind, interested in children, sensitive, patient and cooperative. They are not supposed to be strong leaders, or ambitious, assertive, decisive, competitive, and willing to take risks. Those are viewed as positive qualities for men. And then some negative qualities, like being controlling or arrogant, are often ignored in men, but harshly criticized in women.
Therefore when business women find themselves in a position in which showing the stereotypical male qualities is a prerequisite, many women admit to the impostor syndrome. This is not necessarily true of highly creative women. Csikszentmihalyi’s (1996) study of gifted teens uncovered the interesting observation that creative people tend to ignore stereotypical gender roles. Talented females showed motivation to achieve and be dominant much more readily than their non-creative peers. They seemed openly tougher than the other girls.
The few women who gained success for their unique works in the arts were often criticized for being pushy and difficult (Piirto, 2002). Those who strove to find new discoveries in the sciences were often more introverted than their male counterparts, and did not receive acknowledgement for their work in their life time. There is a devaluation of women’s achievement in business and the arts because these women are not what society expects.