Cognitive Bias Human Resources Personal Branding

Impostor syndrome among women

Have you ever thought the following about yourself: “I’m definitely not as skilled as other people think” or ”I’m just a fake pretending to be an expert”? 

Did it cross your mind that the truth would come out and you’d be identified as an impostor?

If you had such doubts even for a second, you undoubtedly experienced a phenomenon called impostor syndrome. 

You’re not the only one

You may think you’re a freak and this problem affects only you, but the truth is, you’re not alone. This is a serious problem, even among the most talented people all over the world.

Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron, Emma Watson, Kate Winslet – they all admitted to having experienced such a feeling. In an interview, after winning an Oscar, Jodie Foster confessed that she was worried she would have to give her Oscar back if people discovered her flaws.

“The same way when I walked on the campus at Yale, I thought everybody would find out, and then they’d take the Oscar back.”

This syndrome weakens our sense of self-worth and causes us to question our current status and our lifetime achievements. It’s especially evident among highly-successful women. 

Successful women are particularly affected

In 1978 Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes analyzed the psychological phenomenon in question. They gathered 150 highly-successful, widely respected women, including PhD graduates and other honored experts.

Despite the professional degrees, meaningful achievements and widespread recognition by respected authorities, those women didn’t consider themselves bright. They were convinced that they managed to fool anyone who believed in their intelligence. Many of them explained that their abilities were overestimated. Believe it or not, they credited their success to a mistake.

“Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise.”

Deep down they felt like frauds, which led to a battery of psychological symptoms that would depend on their background and personality. According to clinical studies, the most common impostor symptoms are: generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression and frustration. All of them are pretty dangerous for our sanity. It sounds scary, doesn’t it?

Why does it happen to women?

The roots of that phenomenon among women lie in social expectations. One of the studies [1] proposed a hypothesis that highly successful women escaped from the stereotypical gender roles passed on to them by their parents, their school and the environment they were raised in.

Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes determined that women, who took part in their research [1], fell into two most typical groups. The first group of women had a few siblings and they were labeled as the “sensitive” ones in their family. They were told by their parents or close relatives that they needed to look after other people and all the compliments they got were about that. Yet, their siblings were considered “bright”. Once the school started, other opportunities arose, which would allow them to get away from that typical “sensitive” label and to show their other traits. 

“One part of her believes the family myth; another part wants to disprove it.”

They succeeded at school by getting outstanding grades and honors. Members of their families seemed happy, but not that much with their accomplishments, as their parents also praised other children for “intelligence”, even though they achieved less success. How demotivating! And that was when impostor syndrome came into effect. They started to wonder if they really had considerable intelligence. Maybe it was just sensitivity and charm that let them get better grades?

The second group that surfaced within the research study were the women labeled as “superior” in every aspect by their parents from the very beginning. They were told that they started walking and talking the soonest of all the kids. All their paintings were always spectacular pieces of art. Their parents praised them for every little thing they did. They were just exceptional. That, of course, boosted their egos.

But then the school began and changed all of that. They started to question the definition of perfection created by their parents because other kids were getting better grades and achieved so much success so easily, while they had to put enormous amounts of effort into their studies. They began doubting their intellectual abilities.

It is hard to overcome

There are a couple of behavior traits that make it harder to overcome impostor syndrome. One of them includes diligence and workaholism. The fear of being exposed as a fraud is a great hindrance. The stronger the fear is, the more likely you are to work on preventing yourself from being discovered. You work harder and harder just to be rewarded and recognized by respected authorities. Yet, after a while you’re trapped a vicious circle, like so:

recognition and hard work

You observe that working hard often leads to being rewarded, and that is satisfying, but only for a moment. Then you start feeling impostor syndrome again, asking yourself “Why did I get that recognition?” and answering “I don’t deserve it…”.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get used to this vicious circle because the feeling of success doesn’t last long. Beneath the surface of success you can still find that nagging feeling of being a fraud.

Perfectionism amplifies the feeling

People who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to be perfectionists. They’re very likely to spend hours on becoming the perfect version of themselves. They set overambitious goals for themselves and they’d do just about anything in order to succeed, to become proficient and widely recognized in their domain. But even when they do succeed, it doesn’t bring them the feeling of complete satisfaction. Perfectionists don’t really know that term. They are never fully satisfied, they can always find something to be improved.

Did I write a book? Sure, but I should have done it sooner. Did I start a company? Oh yeah, but I should have much more customers by now. Did I manage to deliver a project on time? Yes, but… And it’s always like that, a never-ending story of “buts”. It’s a pretty unhealthy attitude.

On the other hand, if perfectionists don’t manage to achieve their goals at all, they start to experience self-doubt and they question their skills or intelligence. In the long run, it only leads to frustration and burnout. It’s not healthy for your professional or private life.

What about men?

The question whether men experience this phenomenon was also raised and, according to the study [1], the answer is: of course, yes. But impostor syndrome among men occurs less frequently and it is not that intense, as compared to women. It means that men are typically more confident and have a stronger belief in their capabilities. 

There were also two more experiments [2], conducted by Kay Deaux, Elizabeth Farris, which proved the difference between the way men and women evaluate their performance. Men judged their performance more favorably, even if they achieved a similar score to women. They were sure of their skills. On the other hand, women were more likely to use the “luck factor” to explain their outstanding performance. According to the study [3], self-doubt and differences in how men and women perceive their success start at the age of ten.


I got bad news for you. No matter how intelligent or successful you are, it’s quite probable that you’ll experience impostor syndrome at least once in your career (if you haven’t already). 

It’s not a pleasant feeling and it can lead to frustration, demotivation and burnout. That’s why I recommend you adjust your way of thinking of yourself. It’s hard to always achieve impressive results and set the bar higher and higher. Sometimes, it’s just better to accept your flaws and embrace the capabilities you already have.

And if you’re interested whether you might be the victim of imposter syndrome, you can do an online test here. 


[1] Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3). 241–247.10.1037/h0086006.

[2] Deaux, K., & Farris, E. (1977). Attributing causes for one’s own performance: The effects of sex, norms, and outcome. Journal of Research in Personality, 11(1), 59–72. 10.1016/0092-6566(77)90029-0.

[3] Nicholls, J. G. (1975). Causal attributions and other achievement-related cognitions: Effects of task outcome, attainment value, and sex. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(3), 379–389. 10.1037/h0076505.